Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Not-So-Great Debates

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre is credited with originating the adage, “Every nation has the government it deserves.” He used it in a letter in 1811, and it has been adopted by many a political cynic ever since. It applies as well in the current day and particularly at the conclusion of the three Presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For if Americans can agree on one thing, it might be that the legacy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a model of intelligent argument is in no danger of being supplanted; at the same time, we indeed got the debates we deserved.

To review, here is what we got: three moderated, televised encounters of 90 minutes each; the focus of each debate, and in some cases the very questions themselves, were known to each candidate in advance. What transpired, then, was a well-rehearsed recitation of stances and accusations, with an assortment of pre-composed snappy zingers designed to serve as the ultimate takeaways.

Of the three moderators, the first, Jim Lehrer, was highly ineffective, letting the candidates run roughshod over the format and rules; the second, Candy Crowley, was more assertive, even parental, in keeping her charges in order; and the third, Bob Schieffer, basically ran the debate as a regular installment of Face the Nation.

Of the three debates, while partisans keep their own scorecards most agree that Romney outperformed a seemingly unprepared Obama in the first; the second, in a more comfortable “town meeting” format, was probably a draw; and the third, which focused on foreign policy, was won by Obama, who could point to real accomplishments and specific policies whereas Romney could only lament that more radical changes in the geopolitical map hadn’t resulted from the previous four years.

Winners and Losers
As I mentioned, partisans scored each debate differently, but all seemed to use a common set of criteria, in which performance was more important than substance. To the latter point, the population learned there was a subculture of “fact checkers” in the country who jockeyed among each other to have the last word as to which statements by which candidate had at least the ring of truth to them. Like a recount, the truth-to-lies ratios wouldn’t be digested until a day or two after each debate, but it’s clear that the public reaction to the performance of each candidate himself was the truest arbiter of success.

As a partisan liberal, I watched the first debate and had to admit that Romney performed better. On the other hand, I didn’t agree with the content of his opinions – even those few that traversed the fact-checker apparatus unscathed. In terms of content, when I could discern it from Obama’s naturally halting style of delivery, I sided with the President consistently. Romney said the wrong things more forcefully, which resulted in him winning the debate; even though Obama was far more truthful, he took a hit in public opinion polls across the country.

In the second debate, Obama was more energized, more assertive, more likely to hit back at Romney’s jabs. He didn’t score a knockout but given that his candidacy could have been considered over if he had repeated his lackluster performance in the first debate, it was considered a moral victory and helped to halt his slide in the polls.

By the third debate, any of the mythical undecided voters that remained most likely either knew whom they were voting for or decided not to vote at all. Or maybe they’ll vote for Jill Stein, who was excluded from the mainstream of the Presidential race even though she will appear on the ballot. But given the focus on foreign policy and the fact that Obama had the death of Osama bin Laden on his resume and Romney had only a mistake-prone international trip to recommend him, it’s no surprise that Obama won on both style and substance.

Between 66 and 67 million people watched the first two debates; viewership of the third was expected to be smaller because it was the final one and because it went up against Monday Night Football. Compare those figures to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, verified on February 6, 2012, which show that more than 206 million Americans are eligible to vote, and more than 146 million were at that time registered to vote. Just over 131 million voted in the 2008 Presidential election. Most people, then, either ignored the debates or were content to consume second-hand highlights on the news, Twitter, Facebook, and other media.

Learning From the Past
Compare all this with the Lincoln-Douglas debates. At the outset, it’s important to note that the seven one-on-one confrontations that took place from August to October, 1858, were part of the Illinois Senatorial race. There was no national audience – at least not initially. The two would compete for the Presidency in 1860 but in accordance with the practice of the day, none of the four candidates for President that year campaigned for themselves.

The format for the debates was akin to the common practice of stump speaking. None of the debates were moderated. Either Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent, or Abraham Lincoln, the challenger, would open with a speech that typically ran an hour in length. The other would then speak for at least as long, followed by a 30-minute rebuttal from whomever spoke first. And keep in mind, they were talking at such length largely about a single subject: slavery in the territories.

So each debate ran about two-and-a-half to three hours. More often than not, the audience of as many as 10,000-15,000 people stood and listened. While the speeches were mostly directed to the audience, the candidates typically posed questions to each other, to be answered in rebuttal or in the next debate. Transcripts were printed in newspapers throughout the state. No winner was ruled in any of the debates; the proof of the pudding was in the statewide election, which Douglas won. Nonetheless, the well-organized and clearly expressed content of Lincoln’s highly logical arguments made him a rising star of the state’s fledgling Republican party and helped him capture the Presidential nomination for the 1860 contest.

Lincoln’s strong content, which history has shown espoused the morally correct position, stood somewhat in contrast to his actual performance. Lincoln, at six feet four inches – as freakishly tall in his day as an NBA center is in ours – towered over Douglas, who was a full foot shorter. Physically, Lincoln was gangly and awkward. An observer noted that when he spoke, Lincoln would “bend his knees so they would almost touch the platform, and then … shoot himself to full height, emphasizing his utterances in a very forcible manner.”

Though he had and retains a well-earned reputation as an engaging storyteller, his voice was best suited to small groups at a general store. For such a large and powerful man, he had a rather high-pitched voice, and his frontier drawl and odd pronunciation of certain words probably played less well in front of a large audience. He was ridiculed mercilessly in newspapers and magazines around the world in his own lifetime; it is fortunate that he lived before television and its unceasing influence on our own image-driven age.

Richard Nixon was not as lucky. A century after Lincoln’s first successful campaign for President, John F. Kennedy took on Nixon in the nation’s first televised debates. While there were four debates, people only remember and talk about the first one, in which Nixon looked haggard and unkempt next to Kennedy’s youthful glow. It is commonly thought that radio listeners believed Nixon won the first debate though television viewers gave the night overwhelmingly to Kennedy. A subsequent study suggests that this is a political myth, but the first debate stands as such a classic referendum on style over substance that no one remembers Nixon’s much stronger performances over the next three debates or the fact that the race was one of the closest ever, with Kennedy capturing 49.72% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55%.

We the People
The fact is, though many of us bemoan the negative ads, the preemption of our favorite shows as multiple networks carried the debates, and the assumption that all politicians are dishonest, we the people have the government, the debates, and the political process we deserve.

Who among us would watch three hours of political rhetoric in a single sitting (or standing)? Who among us would read speech transcripts, wrestle with complex policy distinctions instead of snappy one-liners, and place greater value over a candidate’s words and ideas instead of his or her physical appearance and comportment? We like to think we would but that’s not how we’re wired and it’s not how the media wants to serve us. Instead, the campaign for the most powerful office in the world is run like a reality show with instant and constant popularity polls, secret alliances, and a flexible definition of “reality.”

Behind it all is the nefarious issue of money and I won’t even address that here. Suffice to say, the Oval Office is for sale to the highest bidder. And that won’t change until and unless we can force our elected officials to change it – but then we’d be asking them to change a system that supports their very careers. That’s democracy, you might say. But I would disagree. WE are democracy and to get the government we deserve, we need to be more deserving of the government we desire.

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