At the close of the first presidential debate, President Barack Obama knew he’d lost, and the rest of us a
greed. Consensus held that he had been tentative and detached, that Governor Mitt Romney had dominated the format, that the President hadn’t delivered any YouTube-ready soundbites. He had been what he never was in the past: boring.
What’s missing here?
Hardly a single analysis of the debate gave victory to Romney on the grounds of his actual political argument. Despite his overwhelming victory, he had simply hammered on his favorite catchphrases and political bullet points about Obamacare and small businesses and our growing debt. During the most recent debate, according to The New York Times, Romney used the phrase “I have what it takes” seven times.
The president offered little more. Like his rival, he repeatedly insisted on a set of EZ-listening talking points: millionaires and billionaires, the auto bailout, Massachusetts healthcare. His fault lay in not spouting these truisms with enough panache.
I guess this is neither new nor surprising, but the degree to which these contests have represented a made-for-TV distillation of politics is alarming. Even questions fielded from the audience usually serve as segues into prepackaged responses, often leaving the actual question unanswered. These debates have been nothing but an opportunity for the candidates to perform their favorite campaign ads in front of a live audience.
All this turns debate from an intellectual forum into a theatrical blood sport. The strength of a candidate’s performance is based not on what he says, but where his eyes wander while his opponent talks, whether he forcefully rips the spotlight away from the moderator, how gleefully he twists the knife. The contestants constantly interrupt each other, giving the impression that neither of our two options for Leader of the Free World learned his manners. Again, this is nothing new. Yet I can’t help but wonder what the voting public gains from watching Obama, Romney and Candy Crowley all trying to shout each other down for a full half minute.
The truly alarming development of these past few debates is that they seem to be conducted in an alternate reality where there is no such thing as “the truth.” What other explanation is there for the fact that, for 90 minutes, two completely opposite claims can both be backed up by the facts? How else is it possible that Mitt Romney’s tax plan both will and will not leave $5 trillion dollars unaccounted for? How else could Obama both cut and not cut $716 billion from Medicare? Apparently these debates are held in a logical vacuum, with neither candidate held to any standard of objectivity. With each contestant free to assert his own set of facts, the argument devolves into an exchange of yes-you-dids and no-I-didn’ts reminiscent of third graders bickering over freeze tag.
Perhaps debates were never meant to be an intellectual forum. In a democracy, knowing how to get elected and knowing how to run a country are often two different things. Maybe the idealized notion of debate valuing policy over performance has always been naïve, and while our current format does encourage demagoguery over intellect to a worrying extreme, winning a debate may always be a matter of smiling at the camera rather than explaining your tax plan point-by-point.
Letting presentation outweigh substance is one thing; letting fiction outweigh fact is another entirely. No matter what form these debates take, they retain value only as long as some basic idea of objectivity is respected. Otherwise, it’s like playing football without referees or holding a spelling bee in gibberish. The outcome is meaningless, but the “winner” claims victory anyways.
It betrays the point of a debate to tolerate these fabrications on a national and critical stage. No one should win by being better at lying than the other guy is at telling the truth, but Romney’s performance — one that so drastically reshaped the electoral landscape — was riddled with fictions.
This is why a fourth party should be added to the debate arena: an objective fact-checking group responsible for verifying the claims that each candidate makes throughout the debate. This group would have to be mutually agreed upon and extremely efficient, their conclusions unassailable. Obviously, this would be a delicate task, and perhaps such a fact-checking apparatus would concern itself only with “whoppers,” the most damaging and most dishonest statements. Intermissions could be made throughout the debate to let the audience know who was bending or demolishing the facts. Opposing the institution of such a group would be extremely awkward for candidates who claim to have the facts solely on their side.
This is probably just the pipedream of a naïve college kid, but I’m tired of debates in which no distinction is made between true and false. The president, as Mitt Romney noted with such exquisite irony, is not entitled to his own facts. Dealing with this is a major part of being president. Why should the campaign be any different?
David Whipple is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .