Presidential debates do not necessarily have an effect upon the outcome of presidential elections. But they are important rites performed as part of the presidential election narrative.
Since 1976, no presidential election has been held without debates as a prelude. And we also have vice-presidential debates, so that we can estimate the worth of the person who might have to jump in at a moment’s notice, should the president suffer some calamity.
While this year’s presidential debates offer the potential for a vivid ideological clash, we should never forget that presidential debates have been, by and large, a disappointment. The candidates can be vague, dull and non-responsive. Additionally, the format doesn’t lend itself to a spirited debate, as the candidates give short responses to sometimes inane questions, in what could be characterized not as debate, but as “dueling press conferences.”
After each debate, pundits will try to spin the outcome as favorable to one side or another, depending on their partisan inclinations. Both sides will claim a “win.” But the only true judge of a presidential debate is the citizenry the candidates are trying to reach.
Here then, is a brief guide to how you can score the debate, as well as what we can expect from the candidates.
Issue One: What’s the way forward? We crave accurate details from politicians, and they rarely give them to us. As you watch the debate, ask yourself if you hear crystal clear and discrete solutions. The malaise of a stagnant economy should push President Obama to have to defend what he, if re-elected, would do differently. Mitt Romney will need to both argue that Obama’s is a failed program and that his alternative is far better. Romney cannot let his argument rest solely on an indictment of Obama’s administration, he must also show what superior replacement leadership would look like.
Issue Two: Who’s to blame for the mess we’re in? Obama’s argument has been that his predecessor gave him a terrible economy, and that he’s had to deal with it. Romney has argued that Obama managed to make things much worse. Obama may need to defend his own policies, rather than ascribing blame. And Romney needs to make sure he can defend a return to Bush-like policies, without being tarnished with the negativity associated with the previous administration.
Issue Three: Who do you trust? Both Obama and Romney have been less than consistent in their statements. You’ll no doubt hear a lot of “I never said that,” or “you’re distorting what I said.” Hypocrisy is always a bigger hurdle for a challenger. To accuse the incumbent of inconsistency is difficult, especially when there’s a long list of contradictions in your own record. This is an area Romney will want to avoid.
Issue Four: Who’s got the best game face? Watching the debaters’ nonverbal behavior in this regard can be revealing. Who, for example, seems unfazed when his opponent delivers a strong argument or counter-argument? On the surface the behavior would suggest “you missed me.” But just like in the case of Muhammad Ali using the “rope-a-dope,” the smile that accompanies being stung by a punch may actually reveal that a devastating blow has landed. When attacked, Obama exhibits a big grin, while Romney chuckles uncomfortably.
Issue Five: Who annoys you the least? In our country we suffer from presidential fatigue. We see and hear too much about presidential politics, and, once having elected a president, we see and hear way too much of the President himself.
The debate gives us clues about how much we may be willing to tolerate. Which candidate seems boring, repetitive, passionless, or has idiosyncrasies that we can only put up with for so long? Obama sometimes has a halting and monotonous delivery that comedians on Saturday Night Live love to parody. Romney has a mechanical way of speaking, which sometimes seems to dehumanize him.
Issue Six: Who thinks fast on his feet, and is witty? Believe it or not, humor counts greatly in presidential debates. We like to think our leaders have a sense of humor. Some of the great moments in presidential debate history were the jokes, zingers, or one-liners that have become the stuff of legend. Obama has a demonstrated gift for humor, but it’s often contrived or mean-spirited. Romney comes off as a “square,” one whose jokes often fall flat.
Estimates are that 83 percent of American voters are planning to watch the debates. Here’s hoping you are one of them.
Steven Weiss is a professor of Communication Studies at NKU. This semester he’s teaching a seminar on Presidential Debates. Additionally, he’s serving as one of the hosts of the Digital Debate in Griffin Hall, Oct. 3 and 11. All are welcome to attend.