Tomorrow night, at 9:00 Eastern Time, President Obama and Governor Romney will have their first of three debates. It will be broadcast live on every major news network with an estimated viewing audience of over 50 million people. (Almost as many as read this blog!)
The word “debate” conjures up thoughts of democracy in action, of competing ideas battling for the right to govern. We imagine, perhaps, it is a way of deciding who’s wiser, who is more fit to lead our nation.
Yet a glance behind the curtain reveals the Presidential debates are nothing of the kind, and indeed, no longer can be.
The winner of a debate is not the one with better ideas, but the one who sounds better saying them. Look at the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate of 1960, where Nixon “lost” in part because he seemed pale, sweaty, and nervous in contrast to Kennedy’s calm affability. (Never mind that Nixon had just gotten out of the hospital.) Or look at Al Gore’s debate with Bush in 2000, where his repeated sighs made him appear condescending. Or John McCain, who wandered the stage in the 2008 “town hall” debate, making himself look like a confused old man.
Of course none of these perceptions had much to do with reality, but in national politics, perception is everything. Partly this is just human nature – we are, after all, emotional creatures – but the national stage of today’s elections makes the problem ten times worse. Every misstep is recorded and replayed literally hundreds of times. Every gesture, every phrase, is endlessly analyzed. Words matter more than ideas. Americans like a “progressive tax” but hate “redistribution of wealth,” even though the former is an example of the latter.
I believe that President Obama and Governor Romney are both very smart people, and that they have both thought long and hard about the real issues. But this unforgiving election allows for few mistakes and even less genuine dialogue. And so they spend hours with debate coaches, learning how to make their ideas more palatable, their sound bites snappier, their body language more confident.
Because even though none of that matters, that’s how people will judge them.
Polls indicate that the vast majority of Americans do not change who they’ll vote for after watching the debates, and I tend to think that’s a good thing. Of course we should be open-minded and willing to change. Just not because of pageantry like this.
I do plan on watching all the debates. They’re high drama, they’re history in the making, and the few minds they change could swing the election. I just don’t want to mistake them for anything other than the circus they are.
What do you think? Am I being too harsh – is there anything substantial to be learned from watching these events? Do you plan to tune in yourself?