No Candidate Left Behind?

The presidential debates are in full swing. After the opener Thursday, Sept. 30, there are to be two more—a town hall format Friday, Oct. 8, and another tightly scripted affair Wednesday, Oct. 13—and that's it. No time for an America with a short attention span to get bored. We've got better things to do than decide who the most powerful man in the world will be.

Universally hailed as "substantive" by the insta-pundits because the candidates actually disagreed on things, the first debate was an unfortunate reminder that the organization that sponsors the debates is bipartisan, not nonpartisan. There's an important difference. What happens when representatives of the two major parties decide the debate format is that every "lesser" party or independent candidate gets shut out. And rather than eliciting differences, the debates are designed to show off both candidates in the best possible light. Thursday night, it worked. It was only good fortune that the candidates do, in fact, have clear policy differences. But the net effect is negligible; viewers were left with the heat of conflict but not much in the way of light. Few minds were changed. And from the bipartisan perspective of the organizers, that's exactly as intended.

Moderator and question-poser Jim Lehrer of PBS did the best he could with the format he was handed: two minutes for a question to a candidate, 90 seconds to the opponent for a rebuttal, and 30 seconds each for optional follow-ups. The format was designed to discourage such follow-ups—particularly by Kerry, who, after Al Gore's wooden performance in 2000, didn't want to be seen as hectoring. But both candidates took advantage of the trick of burying their least supportable, most overwrought rhetorical flourishes in their rebuttals, which could stand unchallenged by the opponent. Responses that begged for some sort of follow-up question skated. Does Bush really think, with nearly half of Iraq now a no-go zone for U.S. troops and the U.S.–supported government, that faith and hope alone will reverse the downward spiral? What will reverse it? The abominable state of affairs in both Afghanistan and Iraq was largely ignored.

Beyond that, what did we learn? Well, we had 90 minutes to familiarize ourselves with each candidate's most annoying tics—Kerry's prefacing every other statement with "I believe that," presumably to distinguish those statements from remarks he doesn't believe; Bush's all-too-homey "that's right, pardner" nods when he finishes an answer, presumably some speech consultant's idea of how to connect with us common folk.

As a candidate many viewers had not seen before, Kerry also showed a poor ability to communicate. It's a shame that John Edwards' rhetorical skills haven't rubbed off. Not only did Kerry do a so-so job of rebutting Bush, he didn't seem to understand that strengthening alliances, though important, is not the most important thing to the audience.

But mostly what we learned was that Kerry can hold his own: no obvious gaffes, and at a number of points he did quite well for himself. This should come as no surprise—the man's been campaigning now for 20 years—but much of the reason people watch these things is in hopes of a car wreck, some spectacular mistake that can be pounced on as evidence that one or the other candidate is unfit. Nothing like that happened; with two seasoned political candidates, it was exceedingly unlikely, which is why their parties organize these debates in the first place. It's all a tease.

After the next two debates, the pundits again will set about trying to tell us who won, spin rooms will be spinning, and instant polls of swing voters will pour in. It's an endless echo chamber. We have a pretty good idea going in who will win. In the first one, our guy did.

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