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Critical Thinking and Prediction

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Having made the claim that the kind of critical thinking analyses we've been doing on the Critical Voter podcast might be better at predicting the outcome of certain campaign events (like tonight's final presidential debate) than straight political analysis, it's time to go out on a limb with a few predictions.

First, you don't need any logical or rhetorical tools to know that the candidates are likely to repeat the performance style they used in the second debate, one that involves treating any question as a speed bump they need to get over in order to unleash talking points prepared and polished in advance.

The format of this debate (which, unlike the first debate, does not force the candidates to directly engage with one another) makes it easier for both President Obama and Governor Romney to fall back on the type of joint press conferences that have, unfortunately, become the default for most presidential jousts.

Also, tonight's moderator, CBS's Bob Sheiffer, is an experienced hand at third debates (having moderated them in 2004 and 2008). While this means he is less likely to do something out of the blue (such as repeat Candy Crowley's strange decision in the second debate to fact check from her podium), it also means he is a known and predictable quantity whose behavior (including his level of ability to enforce the rules) will be baked into the candidate's strategies in advance.

In order to understand the substance of the prepared responses we are likely to hear tonight, you need to keep in mind the true audience the candidates are appealing to, which includes their own base and undecided voters (especially in swing states), as well as the media.

For anyone not fitting into one of these categories, the subjects the candidates insist on introducing (regardless of what question they are asked) can seem bizarre. But if you realize they are trying to appeal to undecided women in the Midwest (for example), that might explain why a question Russia might be answered by something that starts with Russia and ends with a discussion of women and unemployment (traveling through digressions into energy policy and employment along the way).

Also, because tonight's debate is focused on foreign policy, you should expect a fair amount of that discussion to boil down to tropes; language devices used to represent complex situations using simpler, concrete images.

In the 2008 presidential debate focused on foreign policy, for example, Obama's Republican rival John McCain spent a great deal of time talking about his opponent's willingness to "sit down without pre-conditions" with regard to then candidate Obama's alleged willingness to negotiate with hostile countries (such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela) without asking them to first change their behavior.

This trope was meant to conjure up the image of a newly elected President Obama flying off immediately to Tehran or Caracas and sitting quietly while Ahmadinejad or Chavez lambasted him with the type of diatribes they normally reserve for UN audiences, ignoring the fact that, in the real world, any such summits -- presuming they were even being contemplated by the Obama team -- would take place only after long series of lower-level meetings, each of which would come with a set of requirements (i.e., preconditions).

So for tonight's debate, expect tropes such as "leading from behind" (a phrase that came from an anonymous White House adviser who no doubt wishes he never said it, conjuring up as it does the image of fecklessness) to come up almost as frequently as references to a foreign military (be it Afghan or Iraqi) "standing up" as American forces "stand down."

Foreign policy debates almost always lead to endless name-dropping to establish both credibility and warm relations. So expect military generals to make an appearance when it comes time to establish authority for one candidate or the other as commander in chief. And you'll be able to judge which countries the candidates want you to think they have the warmest relationship with by whether their leaders are introduced formally or informally (President Chavez vs. David Cameron vs. Bibi).

This debate also set up an interesting dynamic where a sitting president (who can usually leverage the experience argument against a rival untested in international affairs) will find himself challenged for his own alleged inexperience and naiveté (which his Republican rival will be using to explain what he wants to convince the audience are a long list of Obama foreign policy failures). Thus, the success or failure of either candidate's ability to play the experience card will hang on how well they can portray the current state of American international relations as improving or deteriorating.

If the second debate is any indication, Mitt Romney (like his running mate Paul Ryan) seems to think too highly of how effective gotcha moments can be. For instance, Romney's dropping of accusations on "Fast and Furious" (a complex gun and foreign policy brouhaha that's been lighting up the conservative press for over a year) fell flat in the second debate since the ground had not been prepared for this topic (meaning the candidate also overestimated people's willingness to accept such an accusation as true without more background knowledge).

This could actually be a good thing for the president who proved himself effective at counting such charges by simply ignoring them. But if Mr. Romney drops his reliance on such gotchas, instead using foreign policy to talk about administration failures more in sorrow than in anger, he can both deliver his barbs without diminishing his own ethos in the process.

For President Obama, this debate will determine if his strategy of trying to tie the tag "inconsistent" around his opponent's neck was a good choice. For if his opponent can use international affairs as a way of hanging the same tag around Obama's neck, the president may find himself the victim of a jui jitsu that leverages the formula of Inconsistency = Dishonesty against him.

Stay tuned...