Debatternas betydelse för valutgången

Två presidentvalsdebatter avklarade. En återstår. Under tre veckors tid under valrörelsen handlar allt om just dessa debatter.

Att Barack Obama är en skicklig och disciplinerad kommunikatör är något han bevisade redan valrörelsen 2008.

Mitt Romney å andra sidan är som bäst när han får tala ekonomi och statistik. Han personifierar affärsmannen som vill till Vita huset för att kunna reda ut vad politikerna i Washington har ställt till med.

Men det finns också likheter.

Båda är intelligenta, analytiska och faktaorienterade. Man får lätt känslan av att de mycket väl – om inte deras partier och kärntrupper tryckte på i bakgrunden – skulle kunna sätta sig ner tillsammans och hamra fram överenskommelser till gagn för landet.

En annan likhet är att ingen av dem är speciellt skickliga debattörer. Inte konstigt om presidentdebatterna då blir nervpirrande tillställningar för alla involverade.

Och för väljarna är debatterna dessutom enda gången under hela valrörelsen som man har möjlighet att granska kandidaterna under former och spelregler som – åtminstone på papperet – inte ger den ena fördelar över den andre.

Robert Draper, korrespondent för tidskriften GQ skriver, att dessa debatter paradoxalt nog är både ”absolut avgörande och fullständigt meningslösa”.

Vad kandidaterna säger under debatterna speglar ofta inte de realiteter som möter segraren efter valet. Å andra sidan avslöjar debatterna någon om kandidaternas karaktär.

Draper skriver vidare:

“The reality of what determines a presidential campaign, among the small percentage of voters who move back and forth”, says former John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, “are the debates, where 50 million people watch what these guys have to say. In the aftermath of a presidential campaign, the importance of the debate is so understated, almost an afterthought—when in reality it is absolutely, exponentially the most important thing that happens, times 100,000.”

So consider the stakes, the pressure. And then consider something that might strike you as odd, given how long Obama and Romney have dwelled on the public stage—which is that neither man is skilled at this sort of thing. “Barack Obama, I would submit, is not a very good debater”, says David Birdsell, the dean of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs and a renowned debate expert. “He’s very cautious, he ramps down the arch of ambition that we otherwise see in his prepared spoken material—and it’s distancing. He has that vocal tic where he says, ‘Look’, and then pauses. The ‘Look’ is a gesture of impatience—saying that at best we don’t fully understand the situation, or at worst ‘I’m tired of dealing with these idiotic inquiries.’ It’s deeply condescending. Then he chooses his words very carefully, but they don’t sound like they’re coming from the human heart.”

Wait—could that last sentence be describing someone else? Here is Birdsell’s even less charitable view of Mitt Romney as a debater: “He shows an excess of caution in declaring his interests and perspectives. And he shows a degree of deftness at avoiding commitment—and consistently a failure to provide a compelling narrative of what drives him, either personally or in the policy arena. Now, he remembers figures well, and he looks great in doing what he does. But it’s possible to rattle him. Remember when Rick Perry got under his skin? He replied with, ‘I’ll bet you 10,000 bucks.’ When rattled, he runs to his inner Eddie Haskell.”

So why do we put them through it? Probably because debates force these starchy, overrehearsed, vainglorious pontificators to be human, more or less. We need to see them fidget and fume and (maybe) flash some greatness; and (maybe) we enjoy making them suffer.

But why do we put America through it? Why permit the fate of our country to hinge on three ninety-minute performances that are unlike anything the winner will be expected to do as president?

If you look at history and talk to the experts of the art and science of presidential debates, you find that, during these ninety-minute proto-reality shows, some vital information we can’t seem to get anywhere else is exchanged—even if the candidates screw up or if we take the wrong message from their screwups. You’ll also find, if you talk to people who have directly advised Obama and Romney, either currently or in the past, that this year’s verbal cage fight is anybody’s game.

Political consultants, historians, and debate gurus are united in their opinion that debates are at once absolutely crucial and utterly meaningless. “Obviously on a substantive level debates don’t mean much,” says former Al Gore strategist Carter Eskew, “because nothing discussed is really relevant to what happens when you’re president. But then you go to this other level: Do they reveal character and personality? And I think that in some ways they do.”

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Övrigt: Inlägget publicerat parallellt på The Campaign Dossier.