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The debate club

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 debate.

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.

Tagged: Generation Y, Presidential Debate