I admit I watched the first debate between Obama and Romney, and I will watch the others as well. I also watched the Ryan-Biden debate last week. I did and will watch not because I believe there is any validity to the forum, but simply because I want to stay current with contemporary culture. Besides, nothing else will be on TV.
While I won’t say it was a complete waste of time as there is some entertainment value in the aftermath, watching each side claim victory, they are an utterly useless and pointless exercise.
There was a time when the presidential debates meant something, when it really was a chance to hear how each of the contenders for the job thought and felt about various issues, with real, hard-hitting questions and no tolerance for show boating, deflection and dissembling. Candidates were questioned, and how they answered as much as what they said mattered, as it was more likely to be what they thought and not what they rehearsed. But, sadly that has not been the case since 1988, though some argue not since 1984.
What happened? What changed? Well, simply put, everything.
Once upon a time, actually from 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters ran the nationally televised presidential debates. Under their stewardship, candidates could be asked follow-up questions, town hall participants’ questions weren’t scripted nor were they plants of one party or the other. Candidates were invited to participate, but if they declined, the show would go on without them.
The cost of declining to participate was paid by Jimmy Carter when he refused to participate in a debate with the Republican party nominee Ronald Reagan and Independent John Anderson in 1980. That's right, there were more than two candidates invited to a debate, as there are more than two candidates currently running for the position of commander-in-chief today. (There is a Libertarian candidate and a Green Party candidate. Can you name them without first performing a Google search?) This no-show has been in part credited with Carter’s loss. That’s debatable, but Reagans’ upsurge in the polls immediately after Carter’s no-show was a dramatic warning to all future
The two parties took that warning seriously, and in 1984 jointly vetoed nearly 100 panelists for the first debate in an attempt to take control of the formats — and the outcomes — away from those who would allow each party’s candidates make themselves look bad; neither side wanted a tough moderator. Then, in 1988, Bush’s and Dukakis’ campaigns got together in secret and drafted a document called a "memorandum of understanding." In it, follow-up questions were abolished, and who would be allowed to sit in the audience and who would serve as panelists was specified. Lastly and most importantly, the League of Women Voters would be allowed to continue to host the debates, thereby appearing to comply with the FCC regulations on "equal time" and maintaining a veneer of impartiality and openness, but they would not be allowed any say on how or even where the debates were held.
In response, the League of Women Voters resigned as hosts, exposed the memorandum and issued a statement saying, among other things, that the two major political parties were perpetrating a “fraud on the American voter.”
Since then, all presidential debates have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Granted, this is a nonprofit organization, but calling it nonpartisan is at best disingenuous. First, they are the only ones now allowed to host debates, and they only invite the candidates from the two major parties. It may be a correct assumption that a Green party or Independent candidate stands a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected, but their inclusion in the debates could at least broaden the discussion, moving it beyond each party’s stump speeches.
Having a third, or even fourth candidate up there may infuse new ideas or, barring that, at least require the major parties to address questions and issues from another perspective in response to the "also ran" candidates’ positions. Instead, you have a controlled, limited and highly orchestrated event that does little more than give the candidates a platform, cloaked in fairness, to spin their message for their bases.
This brings us to the complaint that is most often heard about these debates, that they do very little to actually influence voters. I have to partially agree with this accusation, judging from the responses to the question of “Who won the debate” here on the Patch alone. Even the media, whom I hold most responsible in this fraud being perpetrated upon the voting public for not just going along with, but actively feeding into this debacle, say that peoples’ minds don’t get changed by listening to these horse and pony shows; already-held opinions just become more entrenched.
Yet, hundreds, if not thousands of hours of air time has been and will be given to dissecting every perception, every reaction, all with a good dose of each news outlets’ bias. And then the media smugly proclaims they were right all along, the voting public doesn’t care, there are too many people who don’t vote and the American public is simply apathetic.
I have another opinion, or should I say another perception on all of this. I say the American people do care, but are simply tired of the artifice of politics and the media’s coverage of politics. That is my perception, and after all, perception is what counts. Just listen to the media, who won each debate is all a matter of how each candidate is perceived during his canned, rehearsed, orchestrated and thoroughly prepped for responses to the agreed-upon questions