Precisely how much the four televised debates really influenced the 2012 presidential election remains to be seen on Nov. 6; rhetorical and presentational advantage often can prove temporary in the face of the actual issues important to all Americans reasserting themselves in the voters' heads. But, given the recent movements in the polls, it seems reasonable to assert that the four debates, taken together, caused a significant shift in the race and that their huge potential influence was missed or minimized by most of the commentators anticipating them.
So why was this? And what might one learn in one's own life from the successes and stumblings of the various candidates, regardless of who ends up in the White House in 2013?
Certainly, none of this influence would have been forthcoming if people had not been watching the debates in large numbers (lesson one there is make sure you have an audience). But they were watching. According to Nielsen, 67.2 million people watched the first presidential debate and 65.6 million tuned into the second. Even Monday night's foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, up against Monday Night Football, attracted 59.2 million viewers. Those high numbers (a significant portion of the electorate) don't even include the people watching in alternate formats — such as following a Twitter feed or watching online highlights afterward. All together, this would seem to have belied the notion of Americans being incurious about politics or sufficiently polarized and prejudgmental as to be uninterested in the clash of the candidates.
It probably also says something about the lack of real drama elsewhere on television. With cable news delineated and watchable according to ideology; local news almost exclusively, well, local; analysis increasingly privileged over that which is being analyzed; and the fakery of reality TV and talent shows well and truly understood by all, the debates, milquetoast as they can seem by international standards, are one of the few remaining examples of broadly available spontaneity, uncontrolled by producers or sponsors. Americans understood that something unexpected and dramatic might actually happen. They were starved for the relative purity, and historicity, of the debate format. They were tired of analysts and surrogates, who are repetitive. And so they watched these last two weeks, en masse. It was not mere civic duty.
And so what did we learn? The first debate surely revealed the dangers of not wanting to debate, or seeming not to want to, when one actually is answerable to the people (or any other constituency, be it customers, clients or colleagues). Obama fell into that trap. This was a lesson in the perils of the leadership bubble; in debating, listlessness or a lack of enthusiasm easily translates into the air of hubris. And, for those who must argue for a living, there were further lessons here. Take a closer look at the first debate and you get the sense that Obama was generally surprised at and unprepared for what Romney, who had a better grasp of what the viewership wanted and the potential political advantage, was actually saying in his answers. But debating mostly is about what you have to say in the moment. Obama lost the debate because his opponent threw him for a loop.
After the first debate, Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times, "I'll leave the theater criticism to others and talk instead about the issue that should be at the heart of this election." Well, sure, issues matter more than presentation. Still, Krugman misunderstood the importance of communication, or downplayed it for his own political purposes. That kind of defense revealed nothing so much as a lousy presidential performance.
The vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan was a fascinating laboratory in the desperately fine line between admirably potent engagement and apparent rudeness. When someone else is speaking, the shrewd debater looks as neutral as possible (looking a little troubled is about as far as it is advisable to go) only to blaze into conflicting life as soon as the opportunity to speak presents itself. Unquestionably, the vice president squandered some of his rhetorical advantage by forgetting that point, misjudging the importance of seeming to be fair and respectful. With the widespread, near-constant use of split screens this political season, how the candidates receive what the other is saying has, remarkably, taken on a comparable (if not dominating) visual prominence to what they look like, what they convey, when they actually are speaking. For most of us, those reactions are much harder to govern in moments of intensity, and most of us underestimate how much people notice them (ask any teacher). Those who coach the candidates missed that change. Four years from now, it will be different.
The second presidential debate, which allowed for an Obama resurgence, featured the town hall format. With the candidates on their feet, it offered many lessons in the complex relationship between space and power. Romney here fell into the prowling-lion trap — constantly encroaching on Obama's space, which looked aggressive, certainly, but not especially presidential or even confident. So how do powerful people best move? With the right combination of surety, entitlement, humility and, above all, control, ceding and grabbing space with equal sophistication. And they must not look like they need to be behind a desk. A lot of voters lack the protection of big desks and offices. They like to see their candidates out there, barrier-free, twisting in the wind but remaining upright. Neither man saw the importance of that cue either.
And the third presidential debate on Monday? In this instance, the two candidates were seated very close together at the table, with the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, opposite and between them. Unsurprisingly, this was the debate that produced the most moments of apparent agreement. Afterward, though, Obama discussed his difficulty with the artificiality of fighting with someone sitting right next to him. Intimacy requires tactical adjustment; yet both performances actually were scaled too large. Neither candidate really exploited the visual cues, which framed each in the context of the other. Romney's vocals took on a strained quality. Obama felt, at times, diffident. Neither knew that it would have been to his advantage to engage the other more personally and constructively, although still pressing a personal advantage.
Outside the debates, where he seemed similarly uncomfortable during the primaries of four years ago, Obama actually has a sophisticated understanding of how very powerful people can seem more humble by paying attention to how they carry themselves through space. His most successful moment Monday did not take place until the debate was over and Obama was pictured talking to a very young member of the Romney family. He folded up his frame crisply at the waist and listened intently, at some length, to the lively young fellow. It was a gesture of intimacy, which TV loves. It was a moment of fairness — most Americans would like to think that their leaders could have a drink with each other after their debates are through, for they know that from there cometh bipartisanship and actual action. For his part, Romney beamed, proudly and presidentially. It was a made-for-TV vista of great dignity for both men. No debate about that.
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