The presidential debates will highlight the final sprint before the November 6 election. Both candidates have spent countless hours studying their positions and audiences as well as practicing against stand-ins for their opponents. Since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate on September 26, 1960, conventional wisdom has said that a debate can make or break a candidate. The first debate certainly made the charming, relatively unknown Senator from Massachusetts into presidential material. Since then, each debate has been analyzed, evaluated and broken down with audience reactions second by second, just as coaches review videos of American football games.
What added value do the debates really give? For the moment, President Obama seems comfortably ahead in most of the polls, not because he has been such an outstanding President, but rather because Mitt Romney has been a less-than-inspiring candidate. The American people are not enthusiastically shouting, “Four more years of Obama.” Rather, they seem to be saying, “We don’t think Romney and the Republicans are capable of leading the country.”
Will the debates change this? Probably not. Barack Obama is a seasoned debater. One cannot anticipate a major error on his part. Romney, on the other hand, is not a convincing speaker. He has difficulty with specific details about his program and is at an enormous disadvantage of not being an insider on many issues, especially foreign affairs.
What do the debates really show? The psychologist Howard Gardner has written about multiple intelligences. Certain people, he argues, may be excellent linguistically but lack interpersonal or intrapersonal skills. Is a good political leader necessarily one with high verbal capacities in debates? At least two highly respected U.S. Presidents after World War II, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, were not outstanding orators. Eisenhower would certainly have lost debates in 1952 and 1956 against the sharp witted Adlai Stevenson. During an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in 1962 concerning Soviet missiles in Cuba, Stevenson asked the Soviet Ambassador if his country was installing missiles in Cuba, followed by the famous, "Don't wait for the translation, answer 'yes' or 'no'!" After Zorin's refusal to answer the question, Stevenson said, "I am prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over.” What a moment! What quick thinking! Eisenhower, although a great general and highly respected President, had difficulty speaking complete sentences and would certainly have lost any debate against Stevenson.
The presidential debates will tell us little about the candidates besides their linguistic skills. Their wives have tried to tell us about them as people. But, for most people, I am afraid, the debates will be part of a campaign of prepared performances far removed from the reality of what the job of president entails. We know many facts about the candidates, but we know little about their capacities to lead a country.
The debates will be watched by millions of people; they will be analyzed by pollsters and journalists for linguistic skill as well as veracity. The only thing that will not be analyzed, which is perhaps the most important quality of a leader, is common sense. But then again, there is no way of televising or measuring that skill.