election 2012

Why the second presidential debate offered fisticuffs fun but no real news

Why the second presidential debate offered fisticuffs fun but no real news

Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_debate recap_oct 2012_obama_romney
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday night's debate. Photo by Scout Tufankjian

Last night’s Town Hall-style presidential debate is being called one of the best in decades, an aggressive fisticuffs with an interactive audience and a feisty moderator.

And honestly, it was a heck of a lot more interesting than the first debate on October 3, when President Obama appeared to be asleep most of the time and Gov. Mitt Romney looked way too happy. Who wants to see that? 

The debate, the second of three before the November 6 election, was “exciting” by some standards because it had energy. It had some authenticity. We even had a moderator who was willing to follow up with questions that demanded some clarity.

Featuring 80 some-odd audience members who were asking their own questions (vetted by the moderator and debate commission, though not by Gallup, who picked the audience), the debate was a Town Hall-style event: A stage in the round, no podiums, lots of walking around and in-your-face confrontation. 

Did we learn a lot about the candidates' policies?

Not really, because that’s not what these are for. If a candidate wants to “roll out” some new policy statement or idea, he or she does not choose a debate to do it. They choose press conferences, where the press has to dig around to find naysayers. They don’t make news in a setting in which the critic is sitting right next to them and has the full attention of a semi-rapt audience.

 If a candidate wants to “roll out” some new policy statement or idea, he or she does not choose a debate to do it. They choose press conferences, where the press has to dig around to find naysayers.

This is not to say that the debates aren’t important for other reasons. (See: Rick Perry’s “oops” moment.) And it’s not to say that you can’t learn something or take some value out of it. You watch it for gems, to see the candidate walking and talking and acting like a person instead of a talking head. You don't watch to educate yourself on policy. There are nothing but half-truths in debates.

The moderator

Even though both of the candidates didn’t want moderator Candy Crowley of CNN to ask follow ups to the audience questions, she by God asked them because she wanted to try and keep the candidates on topic.

She’s getting hammered by Romney’s people for trying to stop the time-wasting standoff over what Obama meant when he called the Libya attacks an “act of terror” while standing in the Rose Garden the next day. She’s getting criticized for using audience-question time to follow up with her own well-researched questions — sometimes adding context, sometimes broadening the question.

God forbid someone try and hold these guys accountable for their words and make the debate more educational than a series of stump speeches — which is what they usually are. 

Silly moderator. 

The questions

Make no mistake about it.  Even though it is a live event, it is highly likely that no one will ever stand up in one of those Town Hall debates and ask Romney about putting his dog on top of his car or Obama if he really is a Muslim. It’s still interesting to hear what questions they ask because they tend to be the issues truly on the minds of the public.

 [J]obs are at the forefront of this campaign. But when aren’t they? Wasn’t the economy and the war on the front of everyone’s minds in 2008? Or 2004? Or 2000, when Bush ran on tax cuts and the economy?

Last night’s questions touched on women and equality, gun violence, immigration, jobs for college grads, Libya, gas prices, taxes. This is what matters to people in this country. You can’t always know that from watching CNN. 

The focus on jobs

Given that the focus of the first debate was the economy, it’s obviously not lost on anyone that jobs are at the forefront of this campaign. But when aren’t they? Wasn’t the economy and the war on the front of everyone’s minds in 2008? Or 2004? Or 2000, when Bush ran on tax cuts and the economy?

It’s always about jobs. When they asked Romney about his energy policy last night, he said coal miners begged him to save their jobs. They asked Obama about how to bring jobs back to the U.S., and Obama said it’s not just about jobs — it’s about good jobs. Number of jobs, quality of jobs. Paying women equal and saving the auto industry to save jobs. ... It’s always about the jobs. Don’t let the candidates lull you into thinking this is new. 

The winner and loser

Debates, no debate points, winner, loser. It depends on who you ask, and while some say it matters because the debate winner tends to get the donations, really it just matters how they came off to the public. Are they looking defeated? How did they sound? After the first debate, Romney got a bounce in the polls because everyone said Obama appeared to be off his game.

This time, Obama’s getting all kinds of credit because he showed some spirit — but who did better, who won? Anyone’s guess. Better to look at how prepared they are, how intelligent they answer their questions, and if they say anything stupid that will sink their chances no matter what the rest of their policy platform looks like. (See: Rick Perry’s “oops” moment.)

On October 22, the third and final debate will focus on foreign policy. Watch the debate but do your own research.

And meanwhile, if you’re looking for examples of what debates are really about, check out 7 Defining Debate Moments, a video by the Christian Science Monitor. Good stuff.