The three presidential debates have concluded in the United States. Millions and millions of Americans watched, 67 million for the first debate alone. Millions more watched around the world. The candidates responded to questions from two moderators and directly from an audience in a town hall type setup. Topics ranged from the economy to foreign affairs, from the record of President Obama the past four years to former Governor Romney’s performance in Massachusetts and his agenda for the future. Pundits analyzed each phrase, focus groups gave real time reactions to each sentence, each gesture. Pollsters tracked how the undecided scored the debate, how and if voters would change their choice.
Instead of asking the proverbial challengers question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” perhaps American voters should ask “Are we better informed about the candidates than we were before the debates?” What have we really learned?
In the first debate I learned that President Obama is moody. He was apathetic, distant, and almost disdainful of his opponent if not the whole process of having to debate. He appeared to be thinking of celebrating his wedding anniversary with Michelle instead of focusing on impressing voters. I learned that Governor Romney looks presidential, speaks well, and is at ease with economic statistics. He seemed confident, determined and capable as a leader in addition to being personally sympathetic when addressing the audience.
In the second debate I learned that both candidates can be petulant and testy. Neither of them was presidential in their manner, neither of them was able to raise the level of discussion beyond criticizing the other. The debate was not impressive; both candidates showed a lack of stature under pressure.
In the third debate, I learned that Mitt Romney is less at ease when discussing foreign affairs than economics. He seemed unsure of his command of the subject, although he was less petulant and frequently agreed with President Obama in contrast to his aggressiveness in the first two debates. Obama, on the other hand, was definitely in control of the subject of foreign affairs – not surprising for a sitting President – and was firm but not testy in his responses.
Do my impressions matter? First, I must admit it was tiring watching the debates in the early hours of the morning and then preparing notes to present to the media. Second, I am not sure that the debates themselves have a relationship with running the country. It all seemed about performance, about programmed responses to impress specific voters, about scoring points instead of discussing serious matters. As political historian Allan Lichtman is quoted in the International Herald Tribune of October 22, “I think there’s more of a tendency now than in the past to avoid discussion of serious problems.”
Instead of declaring Obama or Romney victorious, I would prefer to say that citizens of the United States were all losers. Neither candidate rose to the occasion. This is not to say that I have not voted. It is merely to say that the serious business of governing merits more than Super Bowl type spectacles.
October 24, 2012