Like bearbaiting, our presidential debates are getting to be bad for the bear and bad for the audience. Last night’s exchange diminished the contenders, who having called each other liars (did they use the L-word? perhaps not, but they emptied the thesaurus looking for synonyms), knaves, and twerps for 90 minutes, would under the old, old rules have promptly settled on a time for their duel. But under the new rules it’s only dishonorable to be called a liar if you lose the election.
Under the not-quite-so-old rules, this kind of personal vituperation would be prevented because no presidential debates would be held (we made it to 1960 without any), and surrogates would be assigned all the bearbaiting. But now we encourage our candidates to go at it, to get in each other’s faces, to dominate the other in good alpha-male fashion. The most feminine, chatty, and compassionate format of all, the Oprah-inspired, roving-microphoned, sadly misnamed “town hall,” has suddenly become a boxing ring.
But one in which the fighters must still be nice to the slow-moving citizen questioners, learn and repeat their first names (before consigning them to the memory hole), and gaze sympathetically into their eyes. Our candidates are supposed to feel the audience members’ pain, while plotting how to answer their questions so as to inflict maximum pain on their rival. On Tuesday night, the circumstances invited a strange alternation between boyish assertiveness and feminist empathy — the one more natural, the other more phony, but both unhealthy for candidates and audience alike.
In short, the format encouraged anything but gentlemanship and statesmanship. Could one imagine Ronald Reagan circling, taunting, and emoting like the unfortunate Romney and Obama? And yet we are selecting someone to fill Reagan’s shoes, not to mention several greater men’s. The president (whoever he will be) remains the head of state as well as head of government. Such debates add nothing to his dignity and efficacy, nor even to his legitimacy, despite what the media like to tell us about the democratic necessity of running this gauntlet.
It’s not fair to blame the debates alone, since the whole presidential-selection process now increasingly conspires against its original purpose of summoning “the deliberate sense of the community.” Nonetheless, last night’s rumble vividly illustrated the temptations to which our politicians are subject in the town-hall age. The competition to launch a trade war with China sooner could hardly be called statesmanlike, and most sentences beginning “on my first day in office” should, evidence suggests, be choked down. On your first day in office, there may be a war on. The questioners kept asking for more details, but don’t they see it’s not the details but the principles of the myriad new laws and programs on offer that they seek? They could never hope to grasp all the details, and shouldn’t want to. I admire the cheek of Romney’s “five-point plan” that he promises will produce 12 million new jobs (that’s 2.4 million jobs per point, for those interested in the details), which is almost a parody of modern panaceas.
So where did last night leave us? I think it confirmed Romney’s breakthrough in the first debate. Millions of voters wanted to follow Clint Eastwood’s advice to just let the man go who manifestly couldn’t do the job, the man being President Obama. But there was an implicit precondition, that the man who replaces him must not be worse and at least must have a plausible chance to be better. Romney’s trouncing of Obama in the first debate established that. The second debate, though a much better performance by Obama, did nothing to shake confidence in Romney’s competency.