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The Joy of Debating (Presidential Style)

October 5, 2012

One of the joys in covering American presidential elections is the uniformity that belies the potential for chaos; there is a rigidity to the events and a fanatical attention to detail to ensure (on the surface at least) that nothing can go wrong, that events occur like clockwork and that ‘democracy’ can be celebrated from sea to shining sea.

Then the candidates get involved and it all gets far more interesting….

A classic example of this is the quadrennial holding of the great debates. Every four years   TV producers pull out stock footage of Kennedy and Nixon and hold the latest candidates up to this historical high-point in an attempt to offer ‘analysis’ and ‘insight.’ The debates form the dramatic highpoint of the election as the candidates appear together for the only time during the electoral process and seek to outdo one another.

Historically the debates have recorded astronomical viewing figures. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these 50 million viewers are switching on to learn anything new. These debates are not traditionally a forum for freethinking, or for wide-ranging answers or even interaction between the candidates. They have historically been a forum for the delivery of stock answers to what are often sycophantic questions. So why the high viewing figures? For the same reason that millions tune in to watch NASCAR or Grand Prix races, part of the reason is in the hope of witnessing carnage; a truly awful moment that will define the election and which people can claim to have witnessed live.

Such incidents have occurred before, but are generally rare and becoming rarer. As politicians have become more professional and less personal, they have generally performed ‘better,’ stayed ‘on message,’ and not fallen foul of dangerous ‘off the cuff’ remark making. Which has, of course, made the debates far less interesting.

Even when the odds look stacked in favour of a disaster, frantic preparation caused disappointment to the millions who tuned in to witness the expected car wreck of Sarah Palin’s 2008 debate with Joe Biden. Despite expectations, the general consensus was that she more than held her own, came across as engaging and, dare I say it, looked great in the camera cut away shot from the back of the stage…

In the fifty-two years since the televised debates began, there have been some remarkable turning points: The visual dynamism of JFK, Gerald Ford’s insistence that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Mondale’s admission that he would raise taxes, Lloyd Bentsen’s withering put down to Dan Quayle and Clinton’s extraordinary use of the set to demonstrate his empathy with the audience.

Debates, therefore, are about far more than content. They are about conveying a feeling and a style that either attracts or repels voters. Gore’s condescension towards Bush in 2000 was palpable and reinforced the impression that Bush would be a far better drinking partner (although whether this is really the basis for electing a president is another matter).

The debates in this election cycle will be fascinating to observe. Irrespective of one’s own view of the candidates, both Obama and Romney are professional politicians. They are not leaving anything to chance and have both been practicing for months. Neither will really debate one another. Instead they will have stock answers, ready to be wheeled out in response to predictable questions. The degree to which the candidates can inject personality into what have been rather staid events,  will be revealing, for it will likely be on this topic that un-decideds will finally make their selection.

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