Thursday, September 30, 2004

But I can tell you one thing, you're no Cicero.

For the last week or so, the press has been reporting on the back-and-forth between the Kerry and Bush campaigns. No, they're not spinning and counter-spinning some issue, or trying to make a dubious rumor seem credible or absurd. Instead, each campaign is trying to make the other's candidate look like the better debater. At first, this seems like a silly tactic, but then we remember the 2000 presidential debates. In those debates, Gore lost not because Bush did anything to win, but because he simply didn't screw up. The "Bush is an idiot" meme was already running rampant, and by avoiding doing anything to make him look like the idiot many were beginning to think he was, Bush won by default. Of course, Gore didn't help his own cause when he showed his frustration with Bush's banality, by making odd noises and interrupting Bush. Still, Bush said nothing and did nothing to show that he was the better candidate. He simply sat back and watched while Gore, who was supposed to be the intelligent candidate with strong debate skills, failed to meet the higher expectations.

What this reveals about the nature of televised presidential debates these days is that they really have no substance, and that even if they did, it probably wouldn't matter. Jason Kuznicki gets it right when he says that the debates are "entirely bloodless, but then he goes astray when he writes:

And that's the problem. We look to debates to tell us about the character of the candidates, to give us a glimpse inside their heads. And what we get is more of the same recycled soundbites that we can already get by listening to their stump speeches.

Jason's "we" must refer to some group other than the general public. It's probably true that most people who haven't already decided which of the two candidates they prefer look to debates to get a better idea of their character, but I'm not sure those people feel like they're not getting a "glimpse inside their heads." Most of these people are not at all interested in a substantive debate on the issues. It's unlikely they would understand such a debate anyway. What they are looking for is their own version of a presidential appearance and manner. Seeing the two candidates side by side, so that they can make an easy comparison, makes the debates an easy source of just this kind of information. It's been that way since debates began to be televised. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debate, Nixon lost, not because his arguments were defeated by Kennedy's, but because Kennedy was a confident, handsome young man. In other words, Kennedy won because he was more photogenic, and played to the camera better than Nixon. Nixon looked awkward and uncomfortable, and many took that to be the glimpse of what's inside his head, or the indication of his character, that they were looking for. It didn't matter what he said, or what Kennedy said. It only mattered that he did, or did not, look presidential when he said it.

The reason that presidential debates have become meaningless infomercials, and that both Kerry and Bush are trying so hard to make the other look like the better debater, is that the campaigns, and the networks broadcasting the debates, are giving the viewers what they want -- live campaign ads. All the pre-debate maneuvering and in-debate scripted soundbites are just good marketing. After all, that's what campaigning is these days. If the candidates actually spent an hour or two mired in detailed discussions of the issues, no one would watch. CSPAN would be the only network to broadcast the debates, and a few intellectual bloggers would comment on them, with those on the right believing Bush had won in a route, and those on the left thinking Kerry had blown Bush out of the water. Undecided and wavering voters, the only people the campaigns care about by September, would read the page 7 headlines about the debates in their local paper, and judge the candidates by their pre-recorded ads.

The problem, then, is not that the debates are bloodless. The problem is that bloodless debates are what people want. Sure, most people like a little blood now and then. There's a whole segment of the population that would love to see presidential debates that resembled pre-fight WWF shouting matches, but if blood's going to be drawn, it has to be in the done in the form of short, memorable quips, such as, ""I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" Can you imagine if Benson had said, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. But I can tell you one thing, Senator, your social policies deviate from Kennedy's in several important ways, including..." followed by a lengthy discussion of the differences between Kennedy's policies Quayle's? No one would even remember Benson had been in a debate*.

* Do you remember the context of Benson's remark? Chances are you don't, and I will bet you that the average person who does remember this remark, doesn't remember the context. Quayle had claimed that he was as experienced as Kennedy was when he was elected. The point, however, is that the context doesn't matter. The quip, the soundbite, is what people remember. It was a burn, and you don't even need the context to see that.


Jason Kuznicki said...

In my defense, I wasn't imagining two hours of detailed policy-wonk chatter. Really what I pictured was a perfectly unscripted spontaneous discussion. If it veered into the snooze-inducing arcana of the tax code, say, then that would reflect badly on the candidate that brought it up.

A good candidate, in my view, would be one who could make the issues relevant and intelligible to the average voter--even while thinking on his feet. The thing I lament is not the absence of policy analysis in the debates; if you want analysis, read the party platforms. Instead, what I miss is the spontaneous nature of a good animated discussion.

Chris said...

I agree. That's what I'd want in a televised debate, too, though I wouldn't mind some actual debate of a few issues. Maybe each candidate picks a couple issues, and they debate those in depth. I'd watch it on CSPAN.

I know it looks like I was disagreeing with most of what you said, but I was really just disagreeing with that one little part. I think most people get from the current debate format what you or I would want from spontaneous discussion. The problem isn't the candidates, it's the people, or at least it's not the candidates any more than it is the people.

Woody said...

While I realize that my comment comes long after this posting, I'll still add one thing.

The title was "'re no Cicero" and the post covered "You're no Jack Kennedy." I wondered why you picked Cicero and suspected that it might be because President Kennedy's famous quote of "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." was a quote originally made by...Cicero. That completes the circle, and, now you know the rest of the story.

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