Loading…
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Current Weather
Loading Current Weather....
Published: 10/2/2012

Debates tell us a lot about those who would be president

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

For de­cades, it was a mat­ter of con­vic­tion among po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als that most Amer­i­cans didn’t be­gin to fo­cus on the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion un­til af­ter the World Ser­ies. That’s just one of many old chest­nuts that have been chucked out the win­dow in the new age. 

The old for­mula won’t work any­more. So the new short­hand is that the de­ci­sive phase of the elec­tion be­gins with the first de­bate, which will be Wed­nes­day night at the Univer­sity of Den­ver.

It may seem that pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns have sev­eral re­sets, most re­cently the du­el­ing na­tional po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions. There’s some truth to that. 

But the twin ac­cep­tance speeches of late sum­mer were cam­paign set pieces, with ev­ery el­e­ment — venue, set­ting, length, topic, at­mo­spher­ics, in­clud­ing the po­dium and the teleprompt­ers — con­trolled by the can­di­dates’ hired hands. There were no un­cer­tain­ties, no hid­den ob­sta­cles, no op­por­tu­ni­ties for forced er­rors.

Wed­nes­day is dif­fer­ent in ev­ery way. The cam­paigns have been in­volved in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the bi­par­ti­san Com­mis­sion on Pres­i­den­tial De­bates that over­sees the events and reg­u­lates the con­di­tions. 

But the dif­fer­ence is that a live, tele­vised pres­i­den­tial de­bate is an op­por­tu­nity to see can­di­dates in­ter­act with each other, han­dle un­an­tic­i­pated thrusts and par­ries, and in rare but re­veal­ing oc­ca­sions show spon­ta­ne­ity.

It is great the­ater. But it is also il­lu­mi­nat­ing the­ater, even if some of the best lines (“There you go again,” for­mer Gov. Ron­ald Rea­gan said to Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter in 1980) have been scripted.

There have been sev­eral re­veal­ing mo­ments, un­for­get­ta­ble el­e­ments of de­bate folk­lore. Such as the ex­as­per­ated sighs of Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore dur­ing his de­bate with Gov. George W. Bush in Boston in 2000. Or the dev­as­tat­ing glimpse of Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush look­ing at his wrist­watch in Rich­mond in 1992, as if to sug­gest that he couldn’t wait to get off the stage he shared with Bill Clin­ton.

“I saw him look­ing at his watch,” Mr. Clin­ton said in an in­ter­view four years ago. “And I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, un­com­fort­able in that set­ting and wanted it to be over with.”

No one knows for sure whether de­bates change his­tory. An en­dur­ing piece of con­ven­tional wis­dom is that Sen. John. Ken­nedy won the 1960 elec­tion be­cause he looked ro­bust and ap­peal­ing in his crisp blue suit in his first de­bate while his op­po­nent, Vice Pres­i­dent Rich­ard Nixon, looked fa­tigued and wan, es­pe­cially be­cause he was wear­ing a gray suit.

The im­pact of this de­bate — and whether in fact the peo­ple who saw it on tele­vi­sion thought Mr. Ken­nedy had won, while those who heard it on the ra­dio thought that Mr. Nixon had won — has it­self been a sub­ject of de­bate for a half cen­tury. But there is no de­bate on this: It’s not op­ti­mal to ap­pear to per­spire or to fade into the back­ground in a gray suit.

A sep­a­rate de­bate has sprouted in re­cent years, ques­tion­ing whether these events mat­ter. John Sides, a George Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, wrote in the cur­rent Wash­ing­ton Monthly: “What his­tory can tell us is that pres­i­den­tial de­bates, while part of how the game is played, are rarely what de­cides the game it­self.”

Mr. Sides cites sev­eral stud­ies — plus a 1960 Gallup poll show­ing that Mr. Nixon led by a sin­gle point be­fore­hand and fell be­hind by 3 points af­ter­ward, which may be statis­ti­cally in­sig­nifi­cant — to sup­port his ar­gu­ment.

But they are part of the pro­cess, and it is im­pos­sible to say in ad­vance what might be­come an im­por­tant cam­paign sym­bol in ret­ro­spect.

Wed­nes­day’s de­bate will in­clude six 15-minute seg­ments, half of them on the econ­omy. One will be on the role of gov­ern­ment, and here the two can­di­dates might pro­vide some valu­able in­sights into their phi­los­o­phy. The As­so­ci­ated Press and the Na­tional Con­sti­tu­tion Center this month re­leased a poll show­ing that only two in five Amer­i­cans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is as­sur­ing the well-be­ing of Amer­i­cans.

That find­ing sug­gests a se­ries of search­ing ques­tions, ex­am­in­ing whether the nom­i­nees be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is fail­ing to ad­dress Amer­i­cans’ needs or whether they be­lieve the cur­rent con­cep­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s role is in­ap­pro­pri­ate to the times.

Whether pres­i­den­tial de­bates change the out­come is prob­a­bly a lot less im­por­tant than whether they in­form the elec­tor­ate. 

This is pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, not a World Ser­ies game. In fact, this year the de­bates will be over be­fore the Ser­ies is.

David Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette.

Con­tact him at: dshrib­man@post-ga­zette.com.



Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. If a comment violates these standards or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report abuse. To post comments, you must be a Facebook member. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.

Related stories