Here’s how I’d sum up each of the three presidential debates: Big Bird. Binders full of women. Horses and bayonets.
Anyone who skipped the debates for the media highlights will immediately know what I’m talking about. These soundbites were three of the very few widely discussed quips to emerge from the debates. Even if you watched every debate from beginning to mind-numbing end, you’d be forgiven for not coming away with more than general impressions (Romney really wants to be president, Obama could barely care) and the basically useless details above.
The only thing these soundbites tell us, actually, is how little we actually learned about the candidates’ positions. For gaffe-prone Romney and barely-ahead Obama, the game has been simple: Don’t screw up. Play it safe. If you think you might say something interesting, don’t. It might backfire, so be as non-colorful as possible.
- The first debate, focused on the economy, brought us Romney’s only specific plan for balancing the budget: slashing Big Bird and the rest of public television and radio funding. That accounts for less than one tenth of a percent of the federal budget, so that leads us exactly nowhere. Since Obama hasn’t been much more forthcoming about plans for a second term as Romney has been about his first, we have nothing substantive to discuss. But Obama looked and sounded even more boring than the whitest plutocrat since Bush Sr., so the Mormon wins.
- The second debate, full of town hall questions from undecided voters (supposedly a mix of southern housewives and blue collar Yanks), brought us Romney’s “binders full of women” comment, which also doesn’t reveal anything enlightening about his stance on reproductive rights, but is fun for news anchors to repeat on air. Obama wants the ladies to vote for him, but doesn’t seem willing to talk passionately about contraception (or anything else). The 26-year-old girl who asked about the gender wage gap still hasn’t decided who she’s voting for. Big surprise.
- Then there’s last night. Anyone who was expecting to hear a significant difference between the foreign policy of these guys should have known they’d be disappointed. Republicans have never been able to ably criticize Obama on foreign policy. He hasn’t done anything they wouldn’t, following lock-step in the oil and blood-drenched footsteps of Bush Jr. So when Romney went on the attack about how the Navy has fewer ships than it did 100 years ago, Obama pointed out that the military also has fewer “horses and bayonets.” Badda-boom! Now we have proof that the two guys served up as the only two choices for president don’t have a shred of disagreement about how they’d handle the country’s longest war in history! Another completely useless piece of information! Awesome!
For anyone who believes that soundbites and staged drama have only recently replaced sober discourse, I’d recommend this column by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who employs some mind-boggling examples of presidents who won the White House with political grandstanding rather than intelligent debate.
FDR took the presidency by smearing his opponent as a socialist? Lincoln because of some macho posturing? It seems likely that American presidents, even the ones deemed superlative by a majority of Americans, may not be any more or less transparent than they used to be. In other words, the only politician that doesn’t lie is the one who hasn’t been elected yet.
More importantly, it’s time to allow third party candidates equal space on the stage. After another spat of tedious debates during the only election a majority of Americans pay any attention to, I’d say it’s time to bring some diverse, novel, maybe even crazy voices into the conversation. This crazy, diverse country deserves better.
And at least the debates would actually be fun to watch.