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The Problem with the Presidential Debates

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I understand that the presidential debates are big ratings events on television, and if you bounce around the channels afterwards (everything from FOX News, CNN, to NBC), you would think that these analysts and TV hosts were like kids on Christmas morning, but there is something conspicuously missing from these interactions between candidates: humanity. They seem so worried about their performances that they have become robotic versions of themselves, put on autopilot and unable to veer off course.

The only one of the four men (President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Joe Biden) who seemed to have a pulse was Mr. Biden; however, he was more like a robot with the key broken off in his back. His facial expressions and suppressed laughter were at times comical, at times distracting, but maybe the most alarming thing was that Ryan didn’t crack a smile. He had a disturbing half-smirk on his face, as if what he was seeing did not faze him in the least.

Now, if I were sitting at that table across from Mr. Biden, I would have been laughing like crazy (as I was as I watched it). Biden was hysterically funny, almost like the kids I remember back in Catholic school who weren’t supposed to laugh as the nun talked about Lake Titicaca. It seemed Biden was in on his own joke, and Ryan was that kid who didn’t get it and was ready to raise his hand to tattle tale to Martha Raddatz.

When Biden did speak though, he went back to the robotic talk along party lines. All four men were caught into that as if the script were laser printed into their brains. Wouldn’t it be so refreshing for one of them to turn to the American people and speak from the heart? Unfortunately, judging by what I have seen in these first two debates, the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz has a much better heart than any of them. Perhaps that is the safe way to go, but it could also be their undoing.

And what about the pundits? After the first debate (depending which channel you were watching) it was either like a wedding or a funeral. Over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow looked like her best friend just passed away, while it seemed as if Chris Matthews was so angry that his head was going to launch off his shoulders as he screamed about Obama’s performance. Even Bill Maher says, “If I watch MSNBC all day I want to marry Ann Coulter and join the Tea Party,” so you get an idea about what you’re getting there. Change over to FOX News and they were dancing a jig. I thought Greta Van Sustern’s face might finally crack a smile, and Sean Hannity’s head was so swollen that it might explode with joy.

After the second debate different things were happening. It was either Hannity claiming Biden was completely “disrespectful,” while a less somber Maddow and Al Sharpton were claiming victory. Curiously, the best place to stop for a long time after both debates was CNN (where the finest reporting continues to be done on a nightly basis). They have their panel of experts, seemingly an even mix of both sides, but the stand-outs here are John King and Wolf Blitzer. They get high marks for their professionalism, and they make me wish that they were the ones debating rather than the candidates themselves.

As for the moderators of both debates, Jim Lehrer (PBS) and Martha Raddatz (ABC) had the thankless jobs of trying to keep things civilized and moving. I am not sure you can compare the two, especially since the formats were so different, but Lehrer seemed to be doing it remotely, as if he could have been on conference call. Raddatz was up close and personal with her charges, but she didn’t seem up to the challenge for the most part.

The upcoming debate is a town hall style meeting, which seems like it could be a dangerous endeavor for both candidates. Neither Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney seems up to the challenge of being off guard (and teleprompter) as they get encircled by an audience that wants to know more than just what facts and figures a candidate can roll out at them. I personally don’t find it impressive when someone talks about numbers; I care more about that the candidate can explain how he will make the next four years better for the country.

I am not certain if the presidential debates can ever be natural for the people who partake in them. For one, it is not the type of configuration that inspires the discourse necessary for the people; rather, it is a forced, artificial, and highly orchestrated atmosphere that inspires the observer to wonder how things could have come to this.

We know America has a long history of debating. Some can still recall the impact of John F. Kennedy debating Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s savvy use of a televised opportunity clearly helped the more photogenic and charismatic senator win the election. In my lifetime, the one that stands out most is the debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter came off as incompetent; Reagan came off as capable – and once again the charisma factor didn’t hurt.

Only recently I was reading about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and how I wish they could have been captured on film for us to view now. Douglas, known as the Little Giant, won the election for the Senate based on his performance, but obviously Lincoln learned something that helped him go on to win the presidential election in 1860. Still, those debates were something of a standard that cannot be matched today. They were long, difficult, and forced the speakers to be eloquent over many hours; now even ninety minutes seems like an eternity with these fellows.

The current debates are supposed to be a way for the American people to get to know the candidates, but I feel we are only getting to see characterizations, something that has been rehearsed ad nauseum and it is painfully obvious. Of course, I will watch the remaining two debates and hope for something more, but I cannot promise I won’t be longing for the results episode of Dancing with the Stars. This show is a great example of democracy in action every week (because people vote for their favorite dancers). Yes, things are orchestrated there as well, but at least all the participants know it and the audience knows it too. How sadly refreshing!

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charlie Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Baronius

    Victor – I more or less agree with this article; it’s why I don’t really watch the debates. But as scripted as they are, they’re also the least scripted event of the campaign, maybe of the politicians’ whole careers. It isn’t like you get any real insight into their souls during stump speeches or conventions. I mean, compared to those events, a debate is like sharing a dorm room with them.

  • Reggie Beauchamps

    The debates, like 99% of the American media, pretty much serve the practice of seeing what one wants to see in the world based on his or her rigidly entrenched preconceived notions.

  • Clavos El Buey


    You’re right, of course, Bar. so is Vic. The debates are pretty cut-and-dried; even soulless. But I think it’s unrealistic to expect them to appear without being thoroughly rehearsed. Even seasoned performers will rehearse to some degree before appearing in front of the cameras for far less important reasons than a campaign “debate” for the presidency.

    Without rehearsal, the audience is far more likely to see performance (and make no mistake, they ARE “performances”) as inept and awkward as Obama’s last week, which appearance, we already know, cost him some serious cred with the voters.

  • Baronius

    Sure, Clavos, I understand how the situation developed. The candidates want to look perfect in every forum. If a church held a joke-telling contest in the middle of the election, the candidates would prepare for it with professional writers and rehearsals. (Non New Yorkers may not realize it, but that’s a real example.) I don’t begrudge the voters coming up with every possible way to trip up the candidates, nor do I begrudge the candidates polishing themselves each time to reveal nothing other than what their campaign staff thinks they should. I suspect though that a candidate could be successful not playing the perfect polished guy all the time.

  • Igor

    The Doha Debates on Megahertz Worldview are livelier. The moderator is much more active on steering the debate back on topic, for example.

  • John Lake

    The Presidential debate was a nightmare. When Romney blamed the Democrats for “trickle down”, Obama went belly up.
    I can’t agree, Victor, with your view on the VP debate. I was on the edge of my seat, glued to every word. When Ryan brought up Scranton, saying that unemployment in that city and in the nation was up, with overwhelming emotion, and yet Biden said, “No. It’s DOWN!” the world forever changed.
    We can’t blame the commenters for spinning their takes; some of these “takes” seemed to have been written before the debates began.
    Friday will make it or break it for one of the contenders. Between you and me, I hope to see Obama do well. A win for Romney could result in what theater goers call, “Global thermonuclear war.”

  • Igor

    American voters are so willfully ignorant that the winner will be the most convincing liar. The dopes on this side of The Tube simply do not know enough to even have a basic sanity check against outlandish claims.

    The most aggressive fighter will win. Sadly.

  • Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    Aside from debate theatrics, voters should listen carefully to what the candidates actually say on the record. Thereafter, weeks of commentaries will thoroughly digest the responses and arrive at potential explanations about the significance of the positions taken. In some cases, candidates may not answer the questions completely. Herein lies the basis for further analysis. In summary, the debates are very instructive for people who listen and research the fact-checking aspects completely.

  • Igor

    The problem is that the moderators are too timid, so flagrant exaggeration flourishes. If one debater were to state that the world is flat, the moderator wouldn’t bat an eye.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    If one debater were to state that the world is flat, the moderator wouldn’t bat an eye.

    Except for when Candy Crowley called out Romney on one of his accusations about Libya. At least she – unlike the vast majority of moderators we’ve all seen – has some cojones…and of course the Right is all aflutter over just how terrible a job she did.

  • Dr Dreadful

    In some cases, candidates may not answer the questions completely.

    You don’t say.

    From what little I saw of the debate, Obama spent most of his time, as is his wont, relating anecdotes rather than answering questions, and Romney spent most of it, as is his, making up policy positions that were completely at odds with the positions he’d held a week or two ago.

  • Clavos El Buey


    Bingo, Doc!!

    You nailed both of them.

    Props to you, Sir…