I have often thought that the popular cliché describing war applies to presidential debates as well – long bouts of boredom punctuated by fleeting moments of great drama and sheer terror. Let’s face it. Most debates are dull, with candidates machine-gunning statistics and policy positions at each other at a rapid but mostly incomprehensible pace. I dare say that even the most educated of voters can follow very little of much of the debates. But voters have been conditioned to sit through sixty or ninety minutes of candidates nattering at each other, hoping for those two or three clarifying moments.
And if we think over the history of debates, the moments are frequently one-liners, and sometimes mere gestures. Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter with just four words in 1980 – “there you go again” – and took a few more to dispatch Walter Mondale four years later, when the aging president promised not to make an issue of the Democratic challenger’s (younger) age. On the down side, Gerald Ford rhetorically liberated Eastern Europe with an ill-considered phrase in 1976 – thus reinforcing the Saturday Night Live-fed stereotype that this Yale-educated lawyer was a dummy. And Al Gore may have lost the presidency in the excruciatingly close 2000 race because of a few unfortunate winces and sighs that seemed to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward his rival George W. Bush. Of course, Papa Bush in 1992 was partially defeated by a sidelong glance – at his watch – during a debate, supposedly telegraphing impatience with the proceedings and disrespect for the American people.
So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website www.moderometer.com to assess how moderate the various statements are).
Still, like a young kid watching a pitcher’s duel on a long summer afternoon, I and most other viewers will be enduring the back and forths, waiting for the big moment. But unlike in baseball, we may not even realize the import of a particular gesture, clash, gaffe or put down, until later, When President Ford misspoke in 1976 about the relative freedom of Eastern Europe, few people watching reacted initially. In fact, afterwards, most people surveyed said Ford had won that debate against Carter. But some savvy reporters seized on the gaffe – and the networks starting replaying that one particular snippet. In the Gerald Ford Presidential Library there are studies showing how with each turn of the news cycle – the “controversy” grew and Ford’s standing plummeted. Twenty-fours hours after the debate, the polls reversed and most Americans surveyed now perceived Jimmy Carter as the victor and Ford as the loser.
And that is the other duality most of us watching debates experience. We watch with our own eyes, listening with our own ears, assessing with our own particular balance sheets. But we will also be watching through the eyes of the media, seeing how reporters react and spin, knowing that their assessments will be so crucial in determining not just who wins the debates, but who wins the election.