The Presidential Debates: Un-reality TV

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the second presidential debate at Ho
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

I would like to believe that overall the televised presidential debates are helpful for America's voters. For some, no doubt they are. But for many, that's questionable. As one acquaintance put it in an email on Wednesday, "both acted like big immature babies." At best, that's hardly "presidential."

The obvious purpose of the debates is, or should be, to inform and emphasize the differences in the candidates' approaches to governing; specifics as well as broader objectives for governing the country. Watching two candidates square off and argue why their platform is better is as old as democracy itself. We certainly got some indication of this from the two debates. Unfortunately, however, much of this was either lost or at least obscured in each candidate's attempts to discredit, imply inadequacy and/or challenge the other's handling of the truth (or the facts). Each side comes armed with those statistics that support his side of the issue. Each says the other is mistaken, wrong, untruthful. The fact is, (as often pointed out subsequently) both are supported by the same statistics. They just use them in different ways.

So what has the voting public learned from that kind of performance? Not much, in my view. The debates, in a TV format, become a kind of Marquess of Queensberry rules boxing match where each is looking to deliver a political knock-out punch-line, not a meaningful debate. But hey, in the world of "reality TV," that's entertainment! In such turbulent times as America is experiencing, is that what the viewers should get? Is that all it takes to decide a presidential election? Who's the last man standing, a verbal gladiator's victory at our version of the Roman Colosseum? Maybe.

On my personal perspective of the debates, to date, I believe President Obama had a tough four years to defend. He went into his first term with some ambitious goals, few of which were realized. However most would probably agree he inherited a pretty messy situation, both domestically and globally. It's probably not unrealistic to describe most of those years as demanding damage control rather than producing great forward momentum.

It's sometimes difficult to remember you climbed into the swamp to drain it when you're up to your ass in alligators, so to speak. It's always easier to be a Monday morning quarterback than it is during the game. This is not necessarily to defend his record, simply to put it into a realistic perspective. Personally, I'm of the opinion that while some of his actions may fairly be challenged, had they not taken place, our economy and peoples' plights might have been a great deal worse. I don't think enough of this is brought out in the debates. I recognize it's difficult to claim a victory for what didn't occur, but might have. Still, I think this point hasn't been made effectively by or for the President.

Governor Romney has had the advantage of criticizing without the burden of presidential responsibility. That's an advantage any challenger usually has. He's certainly not without qualifications for the office he seeks, but in the debates he has focused on Obama's purported "failures" with little consideration for the circumstances I suggest above. That's certainly negative politics, and a negative appeal for support. At the same time I believe he is being rightly criticized for offering governing plans and policies at an abstract level that, to date, he has not supported with much detail. Although Tuesday night, we did hear a "new figure" -- at least new to my ears -- of $25,000 potential limit to individual tax deductions, from which one could choose the most advantageous to claim. At least, that's what it sounded like to me. Now, I wonder just how acceptable that would be to taxpayers who today can deduct well over half a million dollars, or more, from reportable incomes? Humm.

Olympia Snow, the retiring moderate Republican senator from Maine has said, "We're no longer governing -- everything is seen through the prism of politics." I agree. Election differs significantly from governing. The TV debates focus on the former at the expense of the latter. Today's televised debates deliver the wrong, or at least an inadequate, picture of the candidates' potential to govern. How each looks, smiles, is tailored (Romney wins here, in my view) and delivers his stump-answers to the rather predictable questions are what count, and what's remembered by much of the viewing audience.

My preference would be to certainly continue the debates, but on radio, not television. That's a more level playing field. Make your arguments gentlemen, and perhaps someday ladies, but don't ask us to vote for you on the basis of a TV developed special purpose political personality. I want more than that to help decide which I will entrust with the Oval Office for the next four years.

We need a change.