Debate aftermath: The battle for Jeremy's soul

Jeremy Epstein was the first town-hall questioner at Tuesday night’s debate.  He’s the 20-year-old college student who asked, “All I hear from professors, neighbors and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment.  What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”

Epstein talked about his experience at the debate during an MSNBC interview the next day, as related by NBC News in New York:

“Mitt Romney’s first answer — I felt like he was staring into my soul, just right through me, when he was asking me the question. I felt like, you know he offered me a job five minutes into the debate, I felt like his answer was sincere,” Epstein said. “And then when the president came up, I felt like he, you know he started up by saying my future’s bright — I feel like they were both sincere. They talked very well, eloquently, and I felt they both gave good answers.”

His interaction with the candidates quickly sparked a wave of discussion about him on social media, with the hashtag #jeremy trending before the debate was over.

Epstein said he also spoke to both candidates after the debate. He said Romney thanked him for the question.

“I asked him if he’s gonna give me that job in two years and he said ‘Maybe,'” Epstein said. “Then I was speaking with President Obama asking how his Chicago Bulls are gonna do, because they lost their MVP Derek Rose, and he said that I could not beat him in one-on-one, but I disagree with that.”

Epstein went on to say that he has now decided which candidate he will vote for, although he won’t say which one.  Gary Johnson didn’t get a crack at him, so it probably won’t be him.

This business of “staring into a voter’s soul” and offering “heartfelt sincerity” is part of the skill set for successful top-level politicians.  As Jeremy Epstein has doubtless concluded from his experience, it doesn’t provide a very useful window into which set of policies is most likely to bring prosperity to the nation.  There’s an important lesson for every voter there.  We’re always hearing about which candidate is more “likeable” or “relatable,” but the decisions facing America should be made dispassionately.  It’s really not about which candidate seems like he understands the depths of your soul better, or which one would be more fun to hang out with.

Empathy is the most broadly acceptable measure of character in today’s culture, but it’s really not a good measurement.  For one thing, most highly skilled politicians have learned to fake it.  But even when they’re not faking, empathy says very little about competence.  Every accident victim would rather be attended by a grumpy paramedic than a deeply empathetic, high-strung person with no medical skills.  Hasn’t the American electorate gotten itself burned badly enough by casting ballots based on poetry, instead of core American principles and firm reason?

In a subsequent CNBC interview, Epstein said, “I think that Gov. Romney’s business experience did sway me a little bit in that area, but the way the president spoke to me and kind of said you know ‘We believe in the youth of America’ … that really, you know, hit a soft spot and I understood what he was talking about.”  What good is all that “belief in the youth of America” going to do for those who have grown into the adult citizens that Barack Obama distrusts so deeply?  Our soft spots are too large, and too easy to hit.

Romney gave Epstein the wisest and most honest answer, when he replied “maybe” to the request for a job in two years.  “Maybe” is the language of capitalism, freedom, and possibility.