Has watching political debates become kind of like the old line about how people watch car races only in order to see the crashes? The day after this blog post appears on The Twelve we’ll have the first of three presidential debates in the U.S. (and we’ll get treated to one vice-presidential face-off as well) and like many Americans, I will most certainly tune in. To be honest–and also like probably the vast majority of people who similarly tune in–I will not watch thinking that this will influence or change the way I am going to vote in November. And I won’t watch to learn anything new–in fact, I’ll be startled if either Obama or Romney shares a piece of information, a viewpoint, a policy position, or a campaign promise that will be genuinely new to me.
So why watch? In case there’s a crash. Oh, yes, there is drama here, too. When two people spend as much time talking about one another as people running for president always do, there is something vital and intriguing about seeing them within arm’s reach of one another to see what happens. And yes, there is the chance for humorous moments to occur, like when Ronald Reagan in 1984 said he would not make age an issue in the campaign by exploiting Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” That was so funny even Mondale could not resist bursting out in a hearty guffaw.
But come on, people, we watch for the crashes. In our highly scripted, on-message, talking-point political age we long ago stopped having true debates. The average high school Forensics club would be a far, far better place to look if you want to see how true rhetoric and argumentation both is done well and is evaluated for its rigorous content. So instead we watch to see if in a town hall-type debate someone might show impatience by looking at his watch (as George H.W. Bush did in 1992–a faux pas made worse by the fact that Governor Bill Clinton looked like he would have been happy to keep talking to those folks for another three days if he had the chance). We watch to see if a candidate will let nerves and the glare of the kleeg lights get the better of him by saying something patently false (as Gerald R. Ford did in 1976 when he said there was no such thing as any Soviet domination in Eastern Europe–that was a mistake so glaring people everywhere could be heard offering up a collective, “Huh?”). We watch to see if the desire to stay calm and collected will lead a candidate to resist showing emotion at a moment when some raw humanity is called for (as Michael Dukakis learned in 1988 after giving a cold and academic and clinical answer to a scenario involving the rape and murder of his own wife).
And while we’re being honest here anyway, we watch so that we can get a preview of what the folks at “Saturday Night Live” will do in their next comedy spoof of that very debate! Who could forget four years ago when during a town hall debate John McCain inadvertently walked in front of the camera that was on at the time and pointed at Barack Obama. This was low-hanging fruit for the SNL folks who, of course, re-created a debate in which McCain repeatedly wandered around in front of cameras like someone who was lost!
Is it bad that we mostly do not watch for substance? Maybe it isn’t so bad to watch for these other dramatic moments in case we happen to be really up on susbtantive matters as it is. Probably, though, the spectacle of modern-day presidential debates is more detrimental in case those who watch don’t know a lot of specifics to begin with. Maybe debates could be informative after all for people who seldom read or move beyond soundbites. Maybe, but I think those folks watch for the crashes that might happen, too. Earlier this year Newt Gingrinch said that if he were the candidate, he wanted to challenge President Obama to a series of multi-hour debates in the tradition of Lincoln-Douglas. But you get the feeling that not only would that have never happened, few people today would have the patience to watch even if it did.
Perhaps we’ve arrived at a moment in history when having just a carefully managed and pre-scripted debate in which political car crashes become the only interesting component is inevitable. Perhaps that does not speak well of us in the United States. Then again, perhaps nostalgia for Lincoln-Douglas levels of political conversation is also a vain and empty thing that does not advance any cause worth advancing.
I’m not sure. But I will probably tune in for the drama of the possible crash anyway, and just keep my fingers crossed that it’s not my preferred guy who backs his car into a tree or overshoots the back wall of the garage!