Why debates matter
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 15:10
By the time this goes to print, all four debates of this year’s quadrennial exercise in the democratic process will be over, and we’ll be no closer to deciding who won and who lost. Both sides will have made their arguments, excused their failures, and blamed the moderators nine ways from Sunday. The pundits and the campaign surrogates from both sides will have offered up all the predictably standard dismissals of the debates themselves – they don’t matter, toters don’t decide on the basis of debate performance, and we’re not electing a debater-in-chief, we’re electing a commander-in-chief, so it’s all just political theater anyway and who really cares. By now, most of us have made up our minds, so why bother with the debates at all?
The truth is, the debates do matter, but not for the reasons you probably think.
Presidential debates offer the candidates a chance to explain, in a public forum and side by side, what their positions are and what, if any, the difference is between them and the other guy. And yes, to some degree, we should already know this based on what they say on the campaign trail. But debates are a unique forum. Unscripted, without the benefit of teleprompters or the risk of being heckled, candidates often unwittingly offer voters glimpses behind the curtain of politics and campaign grandstanding.
In the unscripted, confrontational setting of a debate, a person’s true character is often revealed. Debates are like verbal martial arts competitions. As in martial arts, the winner is not determined merely by how effective his attack is, but by how well he defends himself. A fighter who keeps his cool and knows when and where to strike will often prevail against a more aggressive, but less disciplined opponent.
In the first debate, President Obama was apparently trying to play the cool, calm defender against challenger Mitt Romney’s aggressive stance. Romney dominated the ring in that fight, even buffaloing moderator Jim Lehrer, who at times looked like he’d been hit by a truck. Barely able to get a word in edgewise, and appearing either unable or unwilling to go on offense, Obama came out of the contest battered and weakened. Instead of looking cool and calm, he appeared detached and uninterested. Romney, on the other hand, presented the appearance of strength and resolve to his supporters, but looked more like a schoolyard bully to his opponents.
In the second debate between the vice presidential candidates, current veep Joe Biden fought like a prize fighter against challenger Paul Ryan, skillfully taking pokes at his arguments and using humor and mockery to dismantle his positions. Ryan, to his credit, stayed focused and didn’t allow Biden to rattle him, but the damage was done. It helps to have command of the facts, and Biden’s verbal jabs and ripostes became a relentless onslaught against Ryan. Biden came out on top of that debate, but his onstage antics offered up opponents some very convenient screen shots. One meme I’ve seen is a picture of Biden laughing with the caption “What’s so funny, Joe?” and a laundry list of what’s wrong with the economy. Biden’s an outgoing guy, but maybe he should have kept it in a little better.
In the third debate, the second of three between the presidential candidates, Romney came out swinging again, clearly feeling the high from his first debate. Obama was obviously better prepared this time. The town hall style favors the candidate who’s better able to connect with the audience, and the middle-class crowd isn’t really Romney’s native ground. Obama played offense and defense extremely well, and kept Romney on the defensive the whole time. And when Romney tried to take control of the forum, he revealed his true character. Angry, domineering and controlling, we saw not Mitt the candidate, but Mitt the former C.E.O., accustomed to running the show and not prepared for a genuine fight. I half expected the Obama campaign to start marketing Mitt Romney dust rags the next day – so you, too could wipe the floor with him.
Debates matter, not because they give the candidates a chance to tell us what they believe, but because they reveal the candidates’ character. The unscripted, directly confrontational forum can be dangerous, especially for someone who’s naturally either timid or overly aggressive. A candidate who acts like a jerk in a town hall forum isn’t likely to improve his behavior during delicate treaty negotiations. Someone who takes a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership isn’t likely to make deals with the other side. And a person who shouts down his opponents and steamrollers a discussion isn’t the kind of person who will engage in the sort of compromise the presidency demands.
As of this writing, the third and final presidential debate has not yet happened. It would be presumptive to predict a winner at this point, but I’m betting the calmer, more measured candidate, who has the facts on his side, and who can present a coherent attack while maintaining an active defense, will ultimately win the stage.
Will it change anyone’s vote? Probably not. But it will tell us more about the men in the race. And that may be the most important outcome.