Off-Topic: The Presidential Debate — Does Aggressiveness Play With Swing Voters?

(Two notes: 1. Though the debate isn’t about foreign policy, Focal Points couldn’t help but weigh in. 2. The author is not a supporter of President Obama.)

Acquiescing to the conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney won the debate last night is surrendering to the notion that appearances are all that matters while content counts for nothing.

Romney labors under the handicap of trying to make policies that are unpalatable to the public palatable, which requires him to contort himself or outright lie. Also, his organization seems to have viewed the debate as an opportunity to solidify his drift from the far right in hopes of winning swing voters. But, assuming they were listening and not just watching, that segment of the population, as well as his supporters — not to mention his opponents — can’t help but be confused by the state of flux in which they found the candidate’s message last night.

Let’s, though, reduce ourselves to reducing the debate to appearances — to wit, Romney’s aggressiveness. First, seldom remarked upon is how, even in his most buoyant moments, tightly wound Romney seems. His presentation last night only made him look that much more excitable, a character trait that obviously doesn’t befit a presidential candidate.

Second, both conservatives and progressives urge their candidates to go on the offensive and puncture what they perceive as the other’s lies. But, arguably, much of the American public prefers that conflict and aggression be confined to reality TV shows.

One of my key electoral handbooks is Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by political scientists Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing. Using focus groups and polls, the authors, as you may know, determined that more of the American public doesn’t participate in democracy because of an aversion to conflict in, say, town meetings and between candidates. The message that Americans are too soft for democracy aside, incivility in politics seems to make them as uneasy as corruption.

Like a spurned lover who doesn’t get the message, President Obama may have clung to his dream of bipartisanship with Republicans too long. But, outside of Washington, civility and cooperation in politics are alive and well. Most Americans believe those are principles to which politicians should adhere. Viewed through that prospective, Romney may have seemed less like an attack dog than a mad dog.