Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why we can’t stop watching the stupid presidential debates

Jack Shafer
Sep 28, 2012 22:30 UTC

The 2012 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates, a four-part miniseries, will debut on televisions and computer screens around the world on Oct. 3 and continue weekly through the month. The program will feature presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in three episodes, and their understudies, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, in one.

I can’t promise excitement or even enlightenment: As viewers of The 2008 Presidential (and Vice Presidential) Debates and its antecedents will recall, the events resemble 90-minute quiz shows in which there are no correct answers, just strong opinions. We come to the debates expecting dramatic oratory and political persuasion, but don’t even get a spritz of hot air. That’s because the debates are primarily designed to unite, not divide.

Highly formatted to begin with, this year’s debates will be even more highly formatted, as Elizabeth Flock reported last week in U.S. News & World Report. The Commission on Presidential Debates – the cutout the two major parties have been using to run the debates since 1988 – has for the first time issued cheat sheets to the candidates listing what topics will be up for debate in their first meeting: the economy, healthcare, the role of government and governing. This will make the study and rehearsal sessions, in which the candidates spend hours practicing their debate sound bites, a lot easier.

As usual, the commission’s debate rules are limiting enough to be called stringent. Open Debates, a non-profit advocacy that wants the debates released from the clutches of the Democrats and Republicans, complains of how “dreary” the events have become, comparing them at their worst to a joint press conference. In the first debate, each topic segment will run 15 minutes (there will be three “economy” segments). Moderator Jim Lehrer will begin each topic set with a question that the candidates get two minutes to answer, and at evening’s end both contestants will get two minutes for a closing statement.

Veteran debate moderator Gwen Ifill notes in the Washington Post that the debates don’t have much of an effect on the presidential election. “Gallup polls going back decades show precious little shift in established voter trends before and after debates,” she writes. Nor does anyone say much of enduring consequence, as Time magazine inadvertently showed with a recent video slideshow of “Top 10 Memorable Debate Moments.” None of the moments cited – Ford’s gaffe, Quayle’s Kennedy pandering, Gore’s body language, etc. – really changed anything.

Willard Milhous Romney

Jack Shafer
Sep 19, 2012 21:06 UTC

Be careful about writing Mitt Romney’s political obituary before they fill him with formaldehyde and pour him into his mahogany condo. Like that other frequent Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, Romney has a remarkable talent for stepping into it, sinking and soiling himself rotten as he extricates himself. Romney’s latest stumble — complaining to rich donors about the “47 percent,” which was Webcast by Mother Jones yesterday — would bury a less tenacious candidate. But Romney’s talent for powering past his embarrassments ranks up there with that of Nixon, a champion of compartmentalization who believed that as long as he had a pulse he had a chance of winning the White House.

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography — and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority — none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

“Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon,” says Greenberg, author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. “The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.” The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

What good are endorsements?

Jack Shafer
Jan 5, 2012 23:13 UTC


Except for providing political journalists with millable grist, what good are endorsements? Obviously, a presidential candidate can’t win his party’s nomination on the power of endorsements alone. If that were the case, as Vanity Fair‘s Todd S. Purdum pointed out last month, Al Gore’s anointment of Howard Dean in 2004 would have worked magic.

Yet candidates continue to whore for endorsements, and other politicians continue to give them for mysterious reasons. Take, for example, John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney yesterday at a New Hampshire campaign stop. McCain doesn’t bother to mask his low regard for Romney, as the New York Times reports today in a piece about the event:

[T]he two men made little eye contact, even when Mr. Romney was introducing Mr. McCain. They shared a stiff, half-hug on stage, patting each other on the back in a perfunctory manner.

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