Romney v. Obama:
The Debate That Wasn’t
by Walter Brasch
What passed as a presidential debate, Wednesday evening, was nothing more than a series of carefully-rehearsed, often rambling, mini-speeches that were more focused on generalities than on specifics.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, experienced debaters and strong orators, each threw out several points at once, hoping a few would stick; the rebuttals were a counter-speech, most of which didn’t address the points at all. The party nominees talked over one another, and both talked over the moderator. More important, numerous critical domestic issues, the first debate’s primary topic, were never discussed. Part of the problem was that Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” who had moderated 12 previous debates, didn’t control the candidates or the debate, nor ask probing follow-up questions. The direction of the debate became quickly obvious when strict time limits were shattered on the first question and every question after that.
Even the most pro-Obama supporter would have to acknowledge that Romney had exceeded expectations and was able to dominate the President, who was not as sharp as he needed to be. Romney was strong and skillful, perhaps surprising even his own campaign staff. President Obama failed to adequately challenge Romney’s vacillating record and statements that may have bordered on truth, nor did he defend his own record as vigorously as necessary. The President’s closing two-minute speech was, at best, lame and not indicative of either his presidency or his oratorical ability. This was not a time for the professorial “No Drama Obama” personality to dominate. Indeed, this debate was nothing like the much-remembered Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858 or even the quality of the average debate by college teams in hundreds of tournaments each year.
The third presidential debate, Oct. 22, will focus upon foreign policy. The format is the same—six segments of 15 minutes each, with each candidate being given two minutes to answer the question. In between will be a town meeting debate, Oct. 16. Non-committed citizens chosen from a Gallup poll will ask questions. A candidate has two minutes to answer the question; the other candidate has two minutes to respond.
The vice-presidential debate is Oct. 11, with nine segments of 10 minutes each.
The Democratic and Republican teams argue for months about format and direction. In two of the three debates they know the topics well ahead of time. For the third debate, the “town meeting,” they can pretty much guess what the questions will be. Each campaign staff has been preparing for weeks to answer and spin the prepared questions. As a result, what passes as debates is little more than rehearsed political monologues between nominees for two political parties. Spontaneity and a quick wit, which President Obama has, was missing at this debate.
But, there is a greater concern than long-winded speeches that don’t give specifics. There is no reason why only Democratic and Republican nominees are allowed to debate. This essentially reaffirms the belief that the U.S. has a two-party system, approved by the mass media, which leaves out significant candidates whose ideas and opinions need to be heard. While a debate with more than a hundred declared candidates is unreasonable, it isn’t unreasonable for the debates to include Libertarian Party candidate Gov. Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein. Both are on the ballots of most states. Both have good views that should be heard. And, both are the only minority party candidates who can mathematically get the 270 electoral votes for elections. Rocky Anderson, whose views are important enough to be heard on a national stage, isn’t on enough state ballots to be eligible to receive a majority of the Electoral College.
The first televised debate was in September 1960 between Vice-President Richard M. Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy. Independent polls, and those who only heard the debate on radio, had suggested that Nixon was the winner, but those who watched it on television overwhelming believed it was Kennedy. Nixon, underweight because of an extended hospital stay, appeared sickly; he also refused makeup to cover a 5 o’clock shadow. Kennedy, however, was tan, handsome, and charming. Two more televised debates followed, but it was the first one that mattered. From then on, candidates knew that image mattered over substance.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan scored points with a famous, “There you go again” zinger casually tossed at President Jimmy Carter. In 2000, Al Gore, who appeared to be defeating George W. Bush, lost any advantage when the TV cameras, and subsequent clips, showed Gore sighing over and over.
Nevertheless, no matter how much we wish to believe that debates matter, numerous polls over the past five decades have shown that voters pretty much have their minds already made up, and the debates serve only to reinforce voter intent. As far as the facts? Moderators don’t challenge the nominees, and if the opponent is too busy preparing his next statement and doesn’t immediately respond, the facts are little more than casualties in this war of words.
Certainly, with a campaign buy of more than one billion dollars just in TV advertising, the voters have already been subjected to enough of what PR people call “messaging.” The debates are just more of that packaged and sanitized “messaging.”
[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist who has covered political campaigns and politics for four decades. He is also the author of 17 books; his latest is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]