Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Right, so the 2012 presidential debates are done with at last—triggering, as predictably as natural disasters produce fundamentalist sermons, a stew of grousing in Wonkland about their shallowness, triviality, and failure to articulate much of substance about whatever issues made the cut. Everybody had a laundry list of topics that never got broached at all (global warming and torture were just two of the big ones). But from my unwonky perspective, complaints of this nature reflect an either earnest or wilful inability to recognize the nature of the beast. All that counts—to the electorate, to the campaigns, and even to the outcome on November 6, which means to history—is whether they were good TV.
If that sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be. I'm a pop critic, which means "Good TV" isn't a derogatory or useless category in my book. From Survivor to The Walking Dead, my favorite measure of good TV is that it's expressive, which this campaign's debates definitely were—all the way from those heady days of Herman Cain bringing the crazy to Obama turning schoolyard snarkmeister last Monday.
Outside Jim Lehrer's putty-colored dreams, where even the leprechauns are gray, the possibility that Romney and Obama—or any other pair of candidates vying for the White House—would take advantage of 90 minutes of free prime time to have a soberly educational discussion about the nuts and bolts of their respective policies was always a non-starter. It would have been if King Solomon himself had been moderating—or even Mr. Rogers, Lehrer's PBS doppelganger, who was rather better at cajoling unruly schoolchildren to sit up and fly right. The reason these encounters are and always will be about performance, salesmanship, and tactical one-upmanship is that the contenders want to win an election, not a diploma. We tune in for the perceptions to be gleaned from the wrangling presentations: Infomercial Death Match, you could say.
And in fact, we do learn all sorts of things—not about policy, but temperament, which scholars keep telling us is a vital presidential quality. In four years of puzzling over Obama, his fellow citizens may never have had a better window into his view of what shouldn't and shouldn't matter in his job than his listless performance in the first debate. Not only facing a rival he didn't respect, he was in a situation he didn't respect either; he plainly begrudged even having to show up for the talent segment of a Mr. America contest when so much else was on his plate. Then the second and third debates reminded us of how fast he can shift to an alternate skill set in the face of necessity, however uncongenial he may find the chore not so deep down.
Though not what you'd call relevatory, Romney's petulance, bullying streak (guess things haven't changed much since prep school), and taste for pointless jailhouse lawyering were on uniquely vivid display in Debates Two and Three. But he won the first one fair and square by disconcerting hell out of Obama with the surprise resurrection of the Moderate Mitt who's been in storage all these years. While there was no reason whatsoever to suppose that this was the "authentic" Romney—ain't no such animal, as we all know—it's worth noting that he seemed not only more vigorous but happier peddling that line than he ever has in his Severe Conservative mode.
Clearly, even hollow men are better suited to being filled up with some kinds of goop rather than others. While that won't matter to the base—with the possible exception of the Know-Nothings, has there ever been an American political party so indifferent to whether its leaders can fake ordinary human decency as today's GOP?—it does show that, under drastically different circumstances, Romney might well have made a perfectly OK spokesmodel for some of our better impulses, not just our cruelest. It was a bit like Pinocchio trying to signal what kind of real little boy he'd like to be if he had any choice, or maybe just which lies he can tell most effectively and with the fewest adverse consequences for his schnozzola. For whatever it's worth, Romney made it fairly blatant that, in a perfect world, he'd still rather pretend to be his dad than anybody else, pretending to be himself included.
If you ask me, none of this is either trivial or shallow. (Neither was the bonus of Lehrer and Bob Schieffer's joint demonstration that old white dudes just don't cut it as America's magistrates anymore.) As for wishing these suckers were serious policy discussions, I can't think of a single presidential debate that's ever been decided on those grounds. Even in 1960, when the jousting between Kennedy and Nixon was relatively substantive, JFK triumphed purely on image, one proof being that people who only heard their confrontations on radio famously thought Nixon had cleaned his clock.
Ever since, all we're ever remembered from the morning after on is delineatory moments, some planned and some not: "I'm paying for this microphone," "You're no Jack Kennedy," George H.W. Bush fatally glancing at his watch and Al Gore's sighs. (Along with Obama's nod-outs during the first debate, "You'll get your chance" and "Horses and bayonets" are this year's likeliest contenders to join the club.) The reason we remember them is that they tell us things perhaps more valuable in the long run than the details of projected policies all too likely to be overtaken and mauled by events in any case. That includes which candidate we anticipate we'll have more tolerance for as the lead actor in a long-running TV show, considering that whoever wins this election will be starring for the next four years in Star Trek combined with American Horror Story. And we won't have the option of changing the channel.
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