By the time this appears, we will know, for good or ill, the results of the 2012 presidential election. Either Mitt Romney will be in position to reprise the calamities of the Bush years, wars, financial bubbles, and all, or Barack Obama will be able to push the restart button and pursue the hopeful change that eluded him the first time around.
Whichever way it has turned out, we will have the nationally televised campaign debates to thank, and that’s a shame. Debates, which have become the centerpiece of American presidential elections, the be-all and end-all, are the worst possible way to choose a leader. Yet, increasingly, they are all that matters.
The reasons for the exaggerated importance of debates are obvious. First, they present a show, and for increasing numbers of alienated and disconnected Americans, politics is just entertainment, with debates offering a night off from reality TV and situation comedies. Who wins or loses is irrelevant; the important thing is the momentary distraction provided by our quadrennial pastime.
The political class itself deserves much of the blame for this attitude. Candidates, who occasionally used to stand for things, stand (deliberately) for less and less. For the most part, political consultants have persuaded them that muddying the waters, being all things to all people, and (except where the tea party dominates) hewing to the middle is the most dependable route to victory. Rule One: Don’t, under any circumstances, let them know what you really think about the fundamental issues that matter.
That’s why the Mitt Romney “47 percent” video caused such a sensation; it opened a window into the candidate’s soul, inadvertently revealing his true beliefs. It’s a view the public seldom gets anymore. Only rare politicians like Joe Biden, a welcome throwback to another era, risk letting the voters penetrate their outer defenses as a matter of course. Playing it close to the vest is the far safer course.
A second reason for the inflated role of presidential debates lies with their news value to the mainstream media, which supplies the moderators. These tend to be TV personalities in their own right, with perspectives and agendas that tend to overshadow or prejudice the proceedings. In this year’s Biden-Ryan vice-presidential encounter, for example, moderator and ABC News foreign-correspondent Martha Raddatz decided foreign policy was all-important — to the near-exclusion of domestic affairs. (Her brain-dead question about entitlements “going broke” was an exception.) As a result, Benghazi, Libya, was momentarily established as the Quemoy and Matsu of the 2012 campaign, which suited the purposes of “news” generation just fine.
A third reason for the preeminence of campaign debates lies with the perceived importance of “low-information” voters, especially the 5 to 10 percent of perennially undecided independents who, in a polarized political context, really decide outcomes. By and large, these uninformed folks are alarmingly clueless when it comes to politics and government; they have no firm beliefs, limited interest in issues, and little knowledge of the candidates. To reach the undecideds, the system relies on the debate format, where style, not substance, rules the day.
It’s a symbiotic relationship; the undecideds can draw their conclusions without much concentrated thought, and the candidates can sell themselves on the basis of appearance and personality rather than mastery of issues. This may be why President Obama, a studious sort, projected the unmistakable impression during his first-round debate with Mitt Romney that he found the entire exercise tiresome and demeaning.
In modern televised debates, ephemera like facial expressions, gestures, and mannerisms — what’s called “body language” — count for everything. The undecideds and the judgmental media look avidly for clues: Who seems to know what they’re talking about, smiles at the right or wrong time, sighs or scowls appropriately or inappropriately, appears empathetic or uncaring, hesitates briefly or responds instantaneously? These are advanced as the crucial measuring sticks of electability in the world’s greatest democracy.
But think what American history would be like if debates had been de rigueur in the pre-debate era prior to 1960. Imagine how certain admired, even revered, presidents of the past might have fared. Dwight Eisenhower, noted for his tangled syntax in unscripted settings, would have struggled to gather his thoughts and express himself clearly. Harry Truman, famous for his short fuse and biting sarcasm, would have lost his temper and attacked the moderator or his opponent in undignified fashion. FDR would have been his usual charming self, but would have been chastised for lack of specifics and too-clever evasiveness.
Go back further. Mercurial Andrew Jackson, sufficiently provoked, would have flown into a rage, perhaps brandishing one of his dueling pistols. Jefferson, the intellectual, would have lost the audience during one of his brilliantly convoluted, barely audible rambles, and he might even have said something in French. Washington, ponderous in thought and expression, would have been slow on the uptake and too magisterial — unless he had received pre-debate prep from the likes of Alexander Hamilton.
Among the icons of the past, only Lincoln, a master raconteur with a storehouse of moral-laden anecdotes to call upon, and the professorial Woodrow Wilson, a skilled academic debater, would have performed really well. The ebullient Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson’s historical antagonist, would have come across as too “hot” in today’s terminology — Joe Biden on steroids.
The point is that winning debates proves one thing, that the candidate is good at debating — but not necessarily good at governing. Debates measure instant recall, memorization, thinking on one’s feet, and making snap decisions; they also reward posturing and the projection of fake emotion. Governing involves a whole different skill set: analytical capacity, measured judgment, proficiency in formal speech-making, adeptness in dealing with people, knowledge of the legislative process, ability to delegate, and so on.
So why do we stake everything on presidential debates, which are essentially meaningless? Probably because something primitive in us demands a mano-a-mano duel between the principals — an expression of machismo American-style. As long as that’s the case, presidential elections will continue to be a crap shoot in which the silly outweighs the serious.
Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2012
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