NEW YORK – WHAT is the point of a presidential debate? In the context of American presidential elections, “debate” is something of a misnomer. When former French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, that was a debate – addressing substantive issues and lasting more than two hours. By contrast, presidential debates in the United States are more like staged performances, where the answers to every possible question have been rehearsed endlessly with teams of coaches and advisers.
The candidates in US debates address carefully selected journalists who rarely follow up on a question. And the candidates’ performances are scrutinised less on the substance of their arguments than on their presentation, body language, facial tics, unguarded sighs, smiles, sneers, and inadvertent eye rolling. Does the candidate come across as a snob, or a friendly guy whom one can trust? Do the smiles look real or fake?
These “optics” can be of great importance. After all, Richard Nixon’s race against John Kennedy in 1960 is said to have been lost on television: Kennedy looked cool and handsome, while Nixon scowled into the camera, with sweat trickling down his five o’clock shadow. In his debates with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter came across as smug and humorless, and Reagan as a friendly old uncle. Carter lost.
In 2000, Al Gore, was unable to make up his mind about which role he wished to play in his debates with George W. Bush, so he looked shifty and inauthentic, changing from arrogant to patronizing and back again. He had the better arguments, but he lost the “debates” (and the election) nonetheless.
We are told that the debates this month between President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, might decide the election. It is, according to the pundits, Romney’s last chance. If Obama comes across as an elitist professor, he might lose. If Romney gets angry, or makes a bad joke, his chances could be blown. Again, this is not a question of who has the best policies, or the soundest ideas; it is all about presentation.
More than 67 million Americans watched the first of this year’s three debates. According to public-opinion polls, only about 17 per cent of eligible voters have not yet made up their minds about which candidate to support. That is surprising, given the widening political gap between America’s two main political parties. In private, Obama and Romney may be able to agree on many things. But the Republican Party has moved far to the right of Obama’s moderate liberalism, and Romney has been pulled along with it.
Then there is the great unspoken factor of racial prejudice, something even hard-core right-wing Republicans try not to express openly. A certain percentage of American voters will not vote for a black man, whatever he says, or however good he looks in a debate.
If policies or prejudices have not persuaded that undecided 17 per cent of voters, they must be looking for something else. They want to see whether they like one man better than the other. To them, one can only assume, the debates are nothing more than a personality contest.
In past elections, when there sometimes really was not much political difference between Democrats and Republicans, this made a certain sense. Broadly speaking, on economics and foreign policy, the candidates often would be in accord, with Republicans more inclined to favor the interests of big business and Democrats defending the interests of labor. So voters could not always be blamed for finding it hard to make up their minds. Since they could not make a rational choice, they followed their instincts and voted for the candidate they found most sympathetic.
This time, there seems to be much less justification for such arbitrary choices. The political differences are too stark. And yet there is a reason not to dismiss the personality contest entirely. After all, the US presidency is a quasi-monarchical institution, as well as a political one. The president and First Lady are the king and queen of the American republic – the official faces that the US presents to the outside world.
It is not utterly absurd, therefore, that voters want to like the look of their presidents, quite apart from the merit of their policies. Choosing the country’s most powerful politician on the basis of his presentability on television might seem arbitrary, even frivolous. But it is no more arbitrary than the accident of birth, which determines the right of kings and queens to reign over their countries.
The difference is, of course, that most modern kings and queens are constitutional monarchs with no political power. And the man whom US voters choose to lead their country will affect the lives of everyone, not just Americans. Because non-Americans cannot vote in US elections for him (a pity for Obama, who would probably win a global vote by a landslide), we have to depend on the judgment of that 17 per cent of undecided voters watching television this month.
That is not exactly reassuring. But the American republic has one merit that monarchies lack. Good or bad, the quasi-king can be booted out every four years. Then the competition – part ideological, part beauty contest – can start all over again.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College, and the author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.