Last Wednesday’s first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, coupled with most of the postgame analysis on television and the Internet, demonstrated all that is wrong with presidential debates in the first place.
By now we all know the narrative. Romney played to win; Obama played not to lose. Romney showed up armed with spirit and compassion, Obama with mere statistics and tropes. Romney held his head high; Obama’s tended to droop into his notes. Romney offered a bold new vision; Obama offered more of the same. Romney won; Obama lost, badly.
Bill Maher put it perfectly well after the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, saying the verdict of each contest should be phrased in terms of “Who is right?” rather than “Who won?” Assessing these events based on the latter, as we do, only begs the question of what “winning” a debate entails. The answer, alas, only reinforces the shallowness and silliness of our politics.
Real debates—the ones between public intellectuals (a regrettably endangered species in America)—are not viewed in such a flippant manner. Properly speaking, the essence of a debate is to put an idea, or proposition, on trial, with each side marshaling a cascade of evidence in support of one position or the other, with the “performance” of each side judged not in terms of theatrics, but in the cogency and persuasiveness of the arguments themselves. The audience might vote on a “winner,” but such a concept only really exists in the mind of each individual viewer.
An underlying assumption here—as idealistic as they come—is that, as in an actual court case, the side that “wins” is not necessarily the team that turns in the most enthusiastic performance, but simply the side whose argument makes the most sense, and is grounded in objective, empirical truth. A dazzling presentation might be a means to an end, but is never the end in itself. Remember: The only reason “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” worked is because the glove didn’t fit.
As you do not need me to tell you, this is not how electoral politics operates. Presidential debates in the modern era have never been driven or determined primarily by argument or truth. That is to say, a given candidate’s performance is assessed independent of whether the argument he presents, and the statistics he cites, is factually sound. Fact checkers and analysts might correct any inaccuracies once the night is through, but rarely, if ever, does this change the picture that the debate itself paints.
This, in short, is the problem.
Forgive my stubbornness, but I still believe in a country in which there is such a thing as objective truth—a truth for which leaders in every political clique are accountable, however inconvenient it might be. Yet, as things now stand, they’re not.
To wit: In the days since the debate, one newspaper column after another has asserted, first, that the thrust of Romney’s case to the public contained plentiful false information and outright negations of past Romney positions, and second, that Romney was the evening’s clear victor, hands down. As if the former had no bearing on the latter.
I sort of wish it did.
Mistake me not. I do not mean to excuse the president for what plainly was, in Andrew Sullivan’s tart words, “political malpractice.” Obama well knows how the game of politicking works—that optics matter, that the public responds to razzle-dazzle, whatever its form—and he has, in the past, taken as much advantage of it as any national figure of the time. Much as he likes to position himself “above the fray,” in his gut he understands that, as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder put it, “Politics is a fray.”
Nor, frankly, do I particularly fault Romney for intuiting the exact same thing and behaving exactly as one might expect in such a circumstance as his. His modus operandi is, and always has been, to act in whatever fashion he thinks will result in maximizing his total vote yield, whatever the cost. He plays by the rules of the game.
My principle indictment, really, is directed toward the enablers of all this unseemly behavior. Those who allow, and oftentimes encourage, the dishonesty to fester, be it in the interests of partisanship or simple entertainment value. They are journalists, bloggers, television and media people of every size and shape. And they are us.