As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.
In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.
As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.
Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.
I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.
Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.
It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.
But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.
The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.
The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.