The most recent presidential debate, like many that followed in previous election years, brought with it an attachment to perception. Last Wednesday, Mitt Romney dominated rhetorically. If debates were decided by sheer amount of words spoken, he would undoubtedly be the winner. Although this is a factor in a candidate’s desirability, it is not the most important criteria.
The debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 were the first to be televised. Many speculated that Kennedy’s cool demeanor and Nixon’s anxious perspiration swayed undecided voters and solidified Kennedy’s eventual victory, all because Nixon appeared nervous. A fundamental change in how we perceive candidates followed.
One characteristic that televised debates portray better than others is posture in pressure situations. This is, no doubt, a becoming trait of any potential president, as the job requires poise during high-pressure and high-stress moments.
Debates do not, however, appeal to reason. The written transcript of the first presidential debate, devoid of tone, inflection, diction and prowess, confuses any decision. Both candidates showed inconsistencies and logical gaps that are often quickly forgotten by the viewing audience. Neither candidate completely and directly answered contentious questions set before them, a politician’s bread and butter, for sure.
The format of the debates and the loose time constraints play another large role in our perception of candidates. One shouldn’t forget that elections are competitions and rules are created to reign in zealous competitors. The moderator, for one, should consistently enforce the constraints governing the debate in order to represent both candidates fairly. Without an enforceable limiting factor, the debates become a spectacle rather than an illustration of democracy in motion. And sometimes, they appear as nothing more than a presidential “beauty” pageant.
Americans want a candidate that speaks to their interests, someone honest, who doesn’t balk in the face of opposition. These debates represent more than what’s at face value. They require the electorate to investigate the debates even after they’ve been watched and to separate the flash from the substance.
As students of higher education, we need to apply an academic scrutiny to their words. Hold them up against their track record on policies. Verify the factual accuracy of each assumption. If the candidates and moderator won’t allow us to see the larger picture, then we must do it for ourselves. Don’t be blinded by the glitz.