Waiting for the Great Debate

       Looking Backward versus a Vision for the Future

Can the Debates Decide the Presidential Election?

Tonight the Republican challenger Mitt Romney will take the stage with President Obama in the first of three debates that many observers believe will determine the election.  On the face of it this sounds absurd.  After hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent buying time to air campaign ads promoting their candidate, carefully crafted propaganda designed to convince masses of Americans to vote their way, the whole ball of wax could be won or lost in three 90 minute debates….sometimes on one statement.  Really?

Well it’s happened before.  Conventional wisdom has it that Richard Nixon lost a campaign to John Kennedy because of a television debate.  Prior to the debates Nixon, who had served as Vice-President under a successful Eisenhower Administration that had built the Interstate Highway system and enforced the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. The Board of Ed case declaring de-jure segregated public schools unconstitutional, was winning.

But the televised debate, which was a novel development in presidential debates, turned the tide in favor of the younger, and relatively inexperienced, Senator from Massachusetts. More importantly the Senator’s victory was not ascribed by the experts to soaring rhetoric or profound insights into the critical problems facing the nation, however weighty and poetic his arguments may have been, but to the fact that Nixon refused makeup and began to sweat, which made him look like a shady character and turned people off.  Hence Jack Kennedy became president because he looked better under the klieg lights.

The debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter is believed to have won the election for Jimmy Carter; after Ford said the nations of Eastern Europe were not under Russian domination.  Jimmy Carter is believed to have lost the presidency when Ronald Reagan looked into the camera and asked “Are you better off now that you were four years ago?” And four years later Reagan, a trained actor who understood the importance of delivering a line well, dispatched Fritz Mondale to the dustbin of history by nullifying the issue of his advanced age; announcing he wouldn’t hold Mondale’s “Youth and inexperience against him.”

These pivotal historical moments leave but little doubt that a Presidential election can be decided by a single faux paux or rhetorical triumph.  Hence stiff, contrived and superficial as they are these debates are of critical importance to the outcome of the election…and thus the fate of the nation.  Romney has been advised to adopt a Reaganesque posture and ask a similar question as to whether voters are better off now.

But that would be a risky business, because the fact is that the nation is unquestionably better off now than we were when President Obama took office. The numbers tell the story even if everybody does not necessarily feel that is the case.  Hence although the President comes into the debate leading in the polls, both overall and in the important swing states, a bad showing in the debate could change the equation for victory overnight.  That’s why Mitt, a bad actor who often comes across as a clueless phony, has been intensely rehearsing his lines for weeks.

Of course I’d rather see a free flowing debate like the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates of the 1850’s – where deep philosophical questions were contested in eloquent oratory shaped by the insights and poetry of Shakespeare and the King James Bible – sacred and secular canonical texts with which both men were familiar – because President Obama would be a sure shot.

The superiority of his vision for the nation, plus the gravitas and eloquence of his oratory would easily carry the day.  But I’ll settle for a safe, mechanical, mistake free, performance which can win the hearts and minds of the untutored dunderheads still sitting on the fence; they who have just begun paying attention to the Presidential election.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October 3, 2012

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