The first presidential debate I ever watched was one of the
Clinton-Dole events, when I was eight years old. I probably didn't
stay up to watch the whole show, and I don't remember a single
thing either candidate said - surely I didn't understand a single
thing either one said - but I remember how more eloquent and
presidential Clinton seemed. It made sense to me that Clinton was
the one in charge of running the country, and Dole wasn't.
When Gore and Bush debated in 2000, I was still pretty young,
but pretty much every sentence in a U.S. presidential debate is
specifically designed to be understood by a 12-year-old, and by the
end I felt that I was the exasperated adult, and Bush was the
obstinately stupid child. I believed that Gore had outwitted his
opponent on every issue every time, but as I recall, pundits
claimed that Gore had "lost" at least one of the debates because
he'd peevishly sighed or shook his head or rolled his eyes while
Bush talked. Of course, every American with an IQ above 85 was
sighing or shaking his head or rolling his eyes while Bush talked -
but this behavior had apparently made Gore look like an egghead, a
persnickety-professor type, and he therefore had "lost" the
What does it mean to win or lose a presidential debate?
Let me admit now that I don't truly believe that there is any
way a member of the present-day Republican Party can "win" a
political debate according to the traditional sense in which a
debate is supposed to be won - that is, by persuading a panel of
judges or viewers who, while possessing both sound judgment and all
the necessary facts, have not yet taken a side on an issue or set
of issues. The reason for this is that the present-day Republican
Party is ideologically bankrupt: there are no facts to support
their positions. The best their candidate could hope for, if he
were to approach the debate earnestly, would be a draw - which is
what would occur if both he and his opponent got stuck in traffic
on the way to the stage.
In the traditional sense, Mitt Romney "lost" last Wednesday's
debate, for the simple reason that virtually everything he said was
false, not just in a philosophically-disingenuous way but in a
hard-facts way: no, Obama has not come close to creating as much
public debt as all the other presidents combined, and no, 20
million Americans will not lose their health insurance next year
due to Obamacare. Regardless of how lackadaisical the president's
performance was last week, a debate can't truly be won by lies, and
so Mitt Romney lost.
But of course we all know that, somehow, Mitt Romney "won." We
knew it even before the post-debate news shows declared him the
winner, via both talking-head declarations and viewer polls.
Everyone I know who watches political debates watches them in an
"untraditional" way, in the sense that they have already made up
their minds, are not looking to persuaded in one direction or the
other, and instead are watching in order to evaluate the candidates
on how good a job they're doing at winning over some other group of
Americans who don't know the facts (because if they did, they
wouldn't still be undecided at this late stage - both Republicans
and Democrats believe this). The question is not "Which candidate
is right?" but the more complicated one of "If I were an unread
person, what would I be thinking right now about the stuff these
guys are saying and doing?"
The truth is that I know Democrats, and I know a few
Republicans, but I have never met a single person who
self-identifies as a member of this other group of "undecided." I'm
not sure anyone I've met has met one, either.
I imagine, even most of these so-called undecided voters watch
the debates believing that it is a less intelligent group of
undecided voters whom the candidates are seeking to convert, and
judge them according to how well they appeal to that group. So it's
not easy to say what the debate's "intended audience" might be
thinking during the debate, what they might like or not. But it is
this group that apparently decides that Gore "lost" the debate
against Bush because he sighed, or when the CNN guy says that
Romney was "throwing some serious heat" against Obama even though
nothing he said had the tiniest bit of substance.
Romney, it's true, seemed more vigorous than his counterpart,
although in this way the challenger always has a leg up on the
incumbent, because he gets the energizing position of "Look at all
the stuff that's going wrong in this country, and all the new ideas
I have to fix it!" whereas the president's line is basically "Hey,
things aren't really so bad, so why not just let me keep doing my
thing for another four years?"
Romney also got an underdog boost: everyone expected him to
commit some major gaffe that would alienate America's entire
non-billionaire population, and he didn't. So when you combine that
surprise and Romney's circumstantial advantage with Obama's rust
and the TV news channels' ratings-motivated desire for a
hey-Mitt-is-back-in-this-thing angle, the verdict becomes a Romney
victory - but only if you believe that the undecided voters we've
never met are as stupid as the TV says they are.
Well, maybe they are, and until we get a debate moderator who
actually interrupts and calls out candidates whenever they tell a
blatant untruth, maybe what Obama needs to do is what Clinton did:
win over the eight-year-old me. Beyond the rights and wrongs of his
and Romney's policies and numbers, the president is, I believe, a
greater, more substantial human being. If the facts are cast aside
like they were at the debate, I still hope Obama wins.