Breaking Myth: Style vs. Substance

Yet again, Barack Obama has done what other candidates for president seem hard pressed to do, that being to draw a massive crowd and leave them all spellbound. Fairfax Iowa, the home for Transcendatl Meditators, let by the once famed Maharish Maresh Yogi, was home to a campaign stop by the vitalic Obama, and as has become a common story, the thousand plus in attendance were captivated by the Senator’s speech.

While the audience is a little off the beaten path, the story remains the same. It’s hard, once you let yourself hear Obama’s message, not to find yourself in support of him. While debate performance is something of a learning experience for him, working a stage is something that comes naturally, and for good reason.

It’s not just the style, which is by most accounts extraordinary. But it’s the words behind the style. It’s the soul of the message that superceding terrorism, healthcare, immigration, and the myriad other divisive issues that plague this country, what has become the greatest threat to the Union is the fact that we are anything but unified.

Listening to Obama, you get the distinctive feeling that he is not trying to establish a nation of mindless zombies nodding to the rhythm of the rhyme like a herd of “Ditto-heads”, but one in which disagreements lead not to division, but healthful compromise, where the wisdom of dissenters is not cast out, derided, and declared unpatriotic, but valued and made to make the final result stronger, and more beneficial to everyone.

I’ve been watching Obama pretty closely for nigh on four years now, and the song has yet to change. Let us relearn how to work together again, and we will succeed in whatever endeavor we undertake.

But, and I suppose this is more than typical of the political season, the mere fact that Obama has opened his mouth has led to his detractor’s to open theirs. Namely, we are yet again treated to the old “Style vs. Substance” meme. True to form, Captain Ed pulls the S vs. S card right before standing up a whole troop of strawmen and knocking them all down in one fell swoop.

This is, of course, nothing new. We saw Style vs. Substance rear its ugly head in 2004. If Rush Limbaugh were to be believed, sure, John Kerry may have one the first presidential debate between he and Bush on style, but Bush delivered substance; this in a debate where Bush repeated, “Hard Work” about a couple million times.

Such sentiments echoed throughout the conservative world like wildfire. Kerry, able to actually put together a cogent sentence, had the style, but the tough talking, though verbally challenged, George Bush, had the substance to lead the country.

This is the point in the narrative where I deliver a pointed, wry look that seems to say, “Yeah, that worked particularly well, didn’t it?”

But here’s the fact. Style vs. Substance is a non-starter, an argument that itself has severe substance defecits, and yet despite its lack of validity of an argument, it’s incredibly effective. The reason for this is simple; it’s subjective, definitive, and particularly useful to turn the tables on someone who is clearly doing better.

Subjectively, the argument asks the receiver to do two things, accept that the proferred candidate is more in line with them on issues, and the opponent sounded better. None of this is objective. We all have differing images of what a perfect elected official should sound like, look like, and at the same time, as any poll ever taken will tell you, we do not unanimously agree on any issue, any time, ever.

So essentially, all this argument does is allow someone to take the candidate they would support anyway, and justify that support based on no substantive argument whatsoever. By taking the opposing politician and saying they are all style, you negate any and all stance on any and all issues on the table. You don’t even have to argue for or against Obama’s plan for healthcare, or his plans for the military because you are essentially claiming he has none (which he does).

And herein lies the definitive aspect of the argument. With one fell swoop, you paint the opposition as a slick used car salesman, snake-oil salesman type politician. Especially given the public’s attitude of politicians in general, it only takes a quick nudge in the right direction to negate one running for office with the old style v substance argument and move on.

But here’s the big one for me. Exactly how much substance do you want a president to have? There’s no set standard, and I find it interesting that the conservative punditry has taken so wildly with this argument when you stop to think that conservatism in general looks upon government as a monolithic micro managing entity in the first place. For TRUE conservatives, a good president does… um… nothing.

Libertarian Ron Paul is perhaps the most definitive picture of a true conservative president, one who would delegate nearly all power to the state governments, keeping as much governmental power as local as possible. I mean, if you listen really carefully to his debate performances, if elected president, he would pretty much render DC irrelevent.

But despite the philosophy of traditional conservatism, there is still this wild call for “substance”. But, again, I ask how much substance is enough? Too much substance can actually be a hindrance to a presidency, robbing from the administration the fluidity necessary to govern in a constantly changing world. It leads to detailed initiatives that, when failed to achieve, hamstring a presidency, relegate a president as a “lame duck” and have voters eagerly looking towards the next guy who might be able to deliver on a promise or two.

And it doesn’t take into account the true role of the president. The President, along with being the Head of State, and Commander in Chief, is the Chief EXECUTIVE. He’s not a legislator, he’s an enactor.

POTUS, of course, has the benefit of the Bully Pulpit, but that pulpit is only so strong as his allegiances in congress, and the will of the American people, as we saw in such legislative battles as the one waged over Social Security.

By being TOO detailed, it is possible to be ineffective as a result of not being able to find enough allies in congress to first draft the legislation, and second get it to pass through congress.

But there’s another problem with being too detailed. Clinton was a lawyer. Bush was a… ahem… business exec. What Clinton know about healthcare reform from his years of law school? What would Bush know about military logistics having never really served himself (before the last few dozen Bush supporters get up in arms, look, I served ten years and would never proclaim to have any CLUE on how to run the military).

The role of the president is analogous to running a very massive and complex business. Does anyone really expect Steve Jobs to know how to mold the plastic casings for his i-pods? Or even pay attention to that particular part of the process? Does the CEO of Ford waste a lot of his work time thinking about what rims to use for the wheels on his vehicles, where they should be produced, and what process? Hell no.

And any CEO of such a large corporation that does pay attention to this stuff, and sticks his fingers in too deep not only risks losing the big picture that he gets paid the big bucks to look at, but he’s taking the job out of the hands who know the specific details better than he ever could, and would be able to manage their execution much more effectively.

The same goes for presidents. I don’t expect a career lawyer to know which country to wage war against, nor how to do it. I don’t trust Hillary to know how to reform Medicare anymore than I would trust Rudy Giuliani with… well… anything really.

That’s not where they best serve the country.

What we want, what we need from a president is not someone who knows everything about everything and has a detailed and scripted plan for all of it. We need someone who is acceptably knowledgable about most things, and has the wisdom to choose people wiser than he or she on all of them to serve in his cabinet.

We need the president to make the appointments regardless of political affiliation, and most definitely not to appoint in order to benefit a small constituency that goes against the benefit of the greater good.

We also need a president who is wise enough to know that he or she does not know everything. We need a president who picks cabinet members and advisors so they can do their job and advise him, not so that they can blindly follow his orders despite their own expertise, nor evidence to the contrary of the policy.

When El Presidente came into office, he created a government that paid lip service to him and him alone, and chose, for his vice president, an enforcer that chills the very soul, a man whose black heart drips cruelty to the point where standing up against him is unthinkable.

Six and a half years after he took office, we are seeing what such a government has done to our nation. We are in an unjust war, and waging it unintelligently, draining our nation’s political capital, and ceding our moral authority. The laws have been rigged to favor big business at the cost of the welfare of the middle class, a species that under these policies may be placed on the EPA’s watch list soon. Thanks to a president with “substance” there has been an eradication of middle ground in politics, any ability for compromise laughed off, every issue no longer approached with intellectual honesty, but instead as yet another battle in a war of ideologies.

If this is “substance” you can have it. I’ll vote for the “style” guy who plans on ending this disaster.

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