Disillusioned democrats: Rethinking presidential debates

By Nico Salvatori
Opinion Editor

October 11, 2012

Most viewers can agree that watching last week’s presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was a rather underwhelming experience, primarily due to the president’s lethargic performance and Mr. Romney’s monotonous tendency to recite his policies in list form.

Another consensus seems to be that Mr. Romney “won” the debate, that is, within a theatrical context, but only because the president lost. Mr. Romney simply put on a better performance than President Obama.

And perform he did.

Mr. Romney’s ability to flip flop on the spot and tell flat out lies with a straight face is remarkable. Once Romney is finished with politics, he should really consider moving to Hollywood. With his clear diction and astounding ability to memorize a script, he’d be great for the movies.

Mr. Romney’s policy reversals are now so ubiquitous, exposing them seems trite and futile for honest journalists. That’s why we have exclusive fact checkers, arbiters of reality who place assertions into the two most primal, consequential categories: true or false.

But fact checking, essential as it is, has become a bore. It’s now a staple of post-debate publications. What we need is real-time fact checking, a debate moderator plugged into the Internet during debates to debunk blatant falsehoods before partisan pundits can spin lies into something resembling the truth.

Most Obama supporters expected the president to be both this check on Romney’s claims, this guardian of the facts, and a strong performer. They expected him to aggressively combat Mr. Romney’s fictions with the truth, not only pointing out his inconsistent health insurance and tax policies, but to reiterate to the public what Mr. Romney truly thinks of almost half of the electorate. President Obama failed in this regard, outraging his fellow democrats and left-leaning talking heads like Chris Matthews.

This gets at the fundamental purpose of presidential debates.

Is it the president’s responsibility in a debate to expose his opponent’s hypocrisy, or is it the responsibility of the media? Shouldn’t the president merely defend his own positions, drawing a contrast between him and his opponent, respectfully, without pandering, without pointing out what everyone already knows—that Mr. Romney is notorious for his ever-changing positions? Why are liberals so angry at the president for not doing the media’s job?

Barack Obama is the President of the United States of America; he doesn’t have time to deconstruct his opponent’s claims one by one. He merely needs to tell us the truth, and let a nonpartisan media compare it with Mr. Romney’s version. Isn’t that why we have a 24-hour news cycle?

Another fundamental question: do presidential debates even matter? Historically, they’ve had very little impact for those whose minds were already made up, so the undecided voter seems to be the target audience. But when the winner and loser are determined by who put on a better show, why are we having debates at all? Does the undecided voter base his/her judgment on which candidate made more eye contact with his opponent? Let’s hope not.

Democratic elections should be about substance, about an informed populace, not debate etiquette, and certainly not theatre.

 

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