The presidential debates: Scripted reality

The presidential debates are as spontaneous as a Broadway play. You might get a brilliant bit of improv here, an actor might fall on his face there, but it's all about delivery. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, October 3, 2012 — Presidential debates are like Olympic figure skating. The candidates have practiced their routines and know exactly what they plan to do. They know they can do it. Now it’s show time.

If they perform their routines exactly as they’ve rehearsed them, we’ll get a dull show designed to be dull.

But nothing ever happens exactly as planned. Skating is exciting when a brilliant and difficult move is executed brilliantly, but more often it’s exciting when nerves or bad luck send a skater crashing to the ice. So it will be with these debates. The most likely excitement will come when a candidate loses focus, blunders, and leaves the crowd gasping in shock. The debates are less likely to be won by skill than lost by nerves.

The first debate will air at 9:00 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, October 3. It will be carried live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and the cable news channels.

Mitt Romney comes into the debate nearly tied with President Obama in some polls, but apparently trailing him in the crucial swing states. The consensus view is that he must do very well in the first debate. He must exceed expectations that he is working very hard to reduce, as Obama works hard to raise them. Obama, once viewed in his party as an orator on par with Cicero, now passes himself off as barely articulate, while suggesting that Romney is the greatest debater in modern history.

In truth, a great line with great timing and great delivery can seemingly change the trajectory of a campaign. Republicans remind us that Ronald Reagan trailed President Carter badly at this stage in the 1980 campaign, but was vaulted to victory by an engaging, good-humored, and sure-footed performance in the first debate.

“Engaging” and “good humored” aren’t words that spring to mind when we think of Romney. Even when his competence is admired, the man himself seems stiff, aloof, and too much like an uncool ex-boss.  

Romney, a man with a history of helping others with his own hands, his own time, and his own money, is widely perceived to care about no one. He has to be very different from the man we’ve grown used to. He has to be likeable – no, he has to seem likeable – as if likeability were what we need from the man who has to deal with our nation’s crushing problems.

Obama might be presiding over the highest level of combined unemployment and labor force disengagement since the Depression, but he seems to care. We don’t want General Patton to lead us into victory over the Germans. We want to be Dumbo, able to fly if only someone gives us a magic feather and loving words of encouragement. We want the president to be not a leader, but a friend.

Because the campaigns were given the debate topics ahead of time (which makes this more like theater than a debate), we can expect both candidates to have canned, polished answers. They should also be armed with a few sharp retorts to expected comments from the other candidate. Each is just dying to launch his “you’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger and his “there you go again” slap down. Both will be careful to say nothing that will offend moderate, undecided voters, but rather to convince us that they’re talented, dynamic, and completely harmless.

Neither will say anything significant if he can avoid it. This will only be interesting if one of them accidentally says what he thinks.

The debates are like Olympic skating in another regard: Many people believe that the ruling body is corrupt and the outcomes rigged.

The ruling body is the Commission on Presidential Debates, and it’s rigged the outcome by allowing only the two major-party candidates to participate. Many conservatives believe that the press have already decided the winner and are just waiting as a matter of form to announce it after the debate, but the CPD doesn’t really care who wins. What’s important to them is that only the two party behemoths, the GOP and the Democrats, are allowed to compete. Their job is to preserve the two-party cartel in American politics.

The CPD is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties and has been hostile to third-party candidates from the beginning. The presence of a candidate on enough state ballots to win the election is insufficient to win permission to participate in the debates. The CPD requires third-party candidates to have 15 percent support in five national polls.

The CPD took over the presidential debates in 1987, after the League of Women Voters dropped its sponsorship. The George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns had signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed on which candidates could participate and who would be allowed to ask questions at the debate. The League considered the resulting debate “a fraud on the American voter.”

These debates matter, but not for substantive, policy reasons. They’re a form of scripted reality, theater that’s supposed to seem spontaneous but is no more spontaneous than an opera. The debates are aimed at how we feel, not what we think.

Romney has less to lose and more to gain by an aggressive debate performance, so he might just try to be daring, especially in a later debate if Obama does well in the first. Obama has only to radiate a steady, even competence and not make a mistake.

And the really fascinating, occasionally brilliant third party candidates? You’ll have to go elsewhere to see them. The Republicans and Democrats own this show, and they’re not sharing.

Join us here at the Communities for a live chat during the debate.   Conservative, liberal, libertarian, Whig – all opinions are welcome (just keep the language clean, please). 

 

Daniel de Gracia

Daniel de Gracia

 

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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