Visceral trumps cerebral
The Philadelphia Inquirer Blog - American Debate
Visceral trumps cerebral
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Any Obama fan who believes that the presumptive Democratic nominee is well positioned to woo anti-abortion voters - indeed, any Obama fan who is giddily anticipating an easy November victory - would be well advised to check the transcript, or view the video, of the faith forum hosted on Saturday night by pastor/author Rick Warren.
As I outlined here last Thursday, Barack Obama is trying to give equal time in the party platform to anti-abortion voters, mostly by signaling that he supports expanded alternatives to the procedure, with the aim of reducing over time the total number of abortions. The potential problem, however, is that few voters pay attention to party platforms. What the candidates say on TV - and how they say it - is probably more persuasive. Which brings us to the nationally-broadcast forum at the evangelical Saddleback megachurch.
Warren brought up the abortion issue, and then asked Obama, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?" Obama then replied, "Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me just speak more generally about the issue..."
One hour later, with John McCain in the chair, Warren asked virtually the same question: "At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?"
McCain did not hesitate. He replied: "At the moment of conception."
Which response is likely to resonate with the vast majority of anti-abortion voters - the unequivocal declarative sentence....or the evasive rumination that (to many people) probably comes off as stereotypical Democratic intellectual dithering?
By the way, the abortion portion of the evening actually got worse for Obama after his "pay grade" evasion. He quickly tried this segue: "The goal right now should be - and this is where I think we can find common ground...is how do we reduce the number of abortions, because the fact is that although we've had a president who is opposed to abortions over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down." Warren heard him out, and then asked him the perfect follow-up question: "Have you ever voted to limit or reduce abortions?"
Obama's response: "I am in favor, for example, of limits on late-term abortions if there is an exception for the mother's health. Now, from the perspective of those who, you know, are pro-life, I think they would consider that inadequate. And I respect their views. I mean, one of the things that I've always said is that on this particular issue..."
And off he went on another extended ramble, which failed to mask the fact that he never answered the question, never cited any past votes to reduce abortions. And along the way, he also made a factual error. Warren didn't call him on it (luckily for Obama), but I will. Whereas Obama claimed that, during President Bush's tenure, "abortions have not gone down," the data shows otherwise. According to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, the most respected keeper of such stats, there were eight percent fewer abortions in 2005 (the latest year available) than in 2000. And during that initial phase of the Bush era (2001 through 2005), the total number of abortions declined each year.
All told, I doubt that anti-abortion voters were drawn to Obama's cerebral ruminations. It's certainly true that McCain is hardly the anti-abortion diehard that he purported to be on Saturday night - back in 1999, he stated that “in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade," and he has never supported a federal constitutional amendment banning all abortions - but he did not ruminate on any of that (nor did Warren ask him, either). All the viewers saw was how he answered on camera: short, direct, declarative. Hence, easy to remember.
The same stylistic gap - cerebral versus visceral - was evident at several other points in the forum, again to Obama's potential disadvantage. Such as the exchanges about the nature of evil.
Warren asked Obama: "Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it?"
Obama's response: "Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil in parents have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world...Now, the one thing that I think is very important for us is to have humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, but, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil...And I think one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good..."
One hour later, Warren asked McCain the same question about evil and what we should do about it. McCain's response began this way:
Then he segued right into his comfort zone, and stayed there: "My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, radical Islamic extremists...If that (suicide bombing) isn't evil, you have to tell me what is, and we're going to defeat this evil...and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us that al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America...We must face this challenge and we must totally defeat it..."
Most Obama supporters undoubtedly believe that McCain came off as simplistic, that he sounded like a talking point for the politics of fear. But from the perspective of a low-information swing voter, I'd bet that McCain came off a lot better than Obama.
The biggest gut factor in this campaign is whether these swing voters can envision Obama grappling effectively with a national security crisis in the middle of the night. A ruminative ramble about evil, about the need for "humility" when trying to confront the evil that may exist in Darfur or in American households or wherever, does not have nearly the same visceral punch as a terse, focused response about al Qaeda (indeed, Obama never even got around to mentioning al Qaeda).
I'm not suggesting that McCain's qualitiative arguments were better or worse (he riffed yet again about "victory" in Iraq, as ever ill-defined). I'm suggesting only that, with respect to the communicative arts in this media-saturated culture, nuanced thoughtfulness is arguably less effective than declarative directness; indeed, the former is particularly perilous for any Democrat, since, fairly or not, millions of low-information swing voters still view the Democrats as insufficiently resolute. These voters are likely to favor the declarative approach anyway, if only because it is easier to ascertain where the candidate stands.
And this is potentially a warning bell for Obama, as the autumn debate season draws near. McCain will be far tougher in those three sessions than many Obama fans assume. Obama might be well advised to lose the nuance and punch up his responses; after all, as a general rule, visceral trumps cerebral.