By Monish Tourangbam
The three presidential debates have ended, but the campaign juggernaut will stop only the day America elects its next President. A retrospective look at the debates that have garnered attention for an entire month would be relevant. These face-offs on television between the Presidential candidates, once in every 4 years, when they come face to face and spar over a host of domestic and foreign policy issues, have become a major marker in the American election calendar. As the candidates stand before the cameras and directly argue over various issues, not only the candidates’ stated positions but also their body language matter. Such requirements have, in the process, made these debates increasingly scripted and highly practiced performances, rather than sincere, spontaneous discussions of policy positions and their impact on the American people.
Often, the debates seem to reiterate what the candidates had been uttering all through the campaign season. But there are some novelty factors also. The fact that the two candidates are facing each other for the first time in the season is of huge significance. The set-up of the duel and the pressure on each contender to appear the victor add spice to the occasion. And, there are the gaffes, blunders made through omission or exaggeration, planned and unintended departures from earlier policy positions and clever one-liners which make the events livelier and more consequential for the poll ahead. The domestic policy debate, the first in the series is followed by a general town-hall style contest (where the audience members who are supposed to be undecided voters ask questions directly to the candidates). The last one is devoted to foreign policy and security issues. In between, there is a debate between the two vice presidential candidates also, which does not attract the same level of attention, but can acquire prominence, as it happened this year, if one of the presidential candidates cedes ground, and then, it falls on his deputy to come to the team’s rescue. When President Obama lost the first round to candidate Romney, there was a lot riding on the shoulders of Vice President Joe Biden and he did deliver with a spirited, though at times loud, performance. Apart from the town-hall style questioning from the audience in one of the debates, questions are asked by a moderator who belongs to one of America’s major broadcast news networks. In the sessions controlled by the moderator, the two candidates then have a set period of time for responses and rebuttals.
With a large number of voters having already decided whom to vote for along partisan lines, the debates might not necessarily decide the winner on November 6. However, there have been many occasions when a spur of the moment comment or an unintended physical reaction have marginally affected the thinking of American voters, costing one of the candidates dearly. For instance, many contend that a handsome and young Kennedy who appeared more relaxed and confident in front of television cameras compared to a visibly awkward and uncomfortable Nixon helped sway the votes toward Kennedy in the 1960 election. In the 1980 debate, the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan coolly faced a barrage of assertions and accusations from President Carter and delivered the winning line with a smile: “There you go again” thus dubbing Carter as a repeater of inanities. Reagan thrived in this format of winning public approval because he had mastered the art of striking his opponent with a sarcastic wit. Reagan was already the oldest President in history when he entered the re-election bid in 1984, and his age had become an issue. When he was asked whether his age would be a problem, he was prepared with a brilliant retort. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said and added for good measure: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The much younger democratic challenger Walter Mondale was rendered speechless.
In 1992, President George H. W. Bush was caught seen looking at his watch while an audience member was asking a question. This reaction was seen as unbecoming of a Presidential candidate and portrayed him as someone uninterested in the concerns of the public. At times, it is the post-debate analyses and commentaries that hurt a candidate more than the debate itself. For instance, in 2000, a visibly annoyed Al Gore was seen sighing and shaking his head while George W. Bush spoke. That clip was replayed many times on television and rapidly became Gore’s nemesis, portraying him as someone who got annoyed and irritated easily. Although he won the popular votes, the Electoral College votes got stuck in a controversy and he eventually lost the election after the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favour.
The debating sessions this time have produced no major gaffes from either of the presidential candidates or the vice presidential nominees, but one thing is clear: if President Obama happens to lose the poll in November, election watchers and his supporters would definitely look back at the first debate and blame Obama’s poor showing there as the game changer. As of now, it appears that the first debate did indeed reenergize Romney’s supporters and he managed to close the clear lead that President Obama had got in most of the swing states in the weeks preceding the debates. Post the bounce that Romney got out of the debate, the election is yet again down to the wire, and the Republican leader indeed has a real chance of upsetting Obama’s reelection bid. Obama did rise strongly in the second debate, ably assisted by a bullish job from Vice President Joe Biden against his Republican challenger Paul Ryan.
And, in the final debate structured around foreign policy and security issues, the President did a fair job of controlling the atmosphere, seeking to reemphasise the foreign policy inexperience of his opponent. To the President’s credit, on a range of issues during the final debate, Romney had nothing else to offer but to toe Obama’s line, differing with the President only in tone, style but not in substance. When Romney complained that the US now has fewer battleships, Obama verbally punched him by retorting: “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” By emphasizing the changed nature of war and vast improvements in modern weaponry, the President scored an important winning point. The fact remains, however, that his challenger, who till recent times, was clearly trailing behind the President has suddenly emerged as a credible and stronger candidate. And, this at a time in the election cycle when it matters the most. Obama’s supporters and campaign managers have conceded that the election is tight and that the few battleground states will decide the winner. The October surprise of Romney’s clear win over Obama in the first debate has changed the whole dynamic of the game. The President, to the dismay of his supporters, remained receptive throughout the entire first debate in contrast to Romney who looked charged, precise, and forceful and threw no gaffes for a change. Romney supporters say that the psychology of the race has drastically changed. “For a long time, the Republican rationale was ‘I just want Obama to lose,’ ” said Brian Ballard, a co-chairman of the Romney campaign in Florida. “He opened people’s eyes at the debate. It moved the needle for the pro-Romney vote, not just that we can’t have four more years of the same,” he said. The Republican team has repeated their charge that Obama was merely defending his record of four years and had failed to offer any vision for the future.
On the other hand, the Democratic team continues to emphasise the lack of clarity in Romney’s policy proposals and his penchant for changing positions on critical issues keeping electoral dynamics in mind. Obama in his campaign tours has even invented a term “Romnesia” alluding to his opponent’s flip-flopping on his policy positions for political expediency. Romney’s flip-flop ideologically from the primaries, when he appeared hawkish to please the far-right Republicans, to a softer and moderate tone in the debates to please undecided voters has, according to analysts, made Romney more marketable and more presidential; debunking Democrats’ efforts to label him a plutocratic candidate of the rich and for the rich.
On the other hand, Romney’s moderate tone in the debates might also end up reinforcing the perception that the Republican candidate changes his position to gain political points, a trait Americans would not generally identify with their President and in the process solidifying Obama’s charge that Romney was a politician who would not stand firm on his principles. From the Iranian nuclear issue to support for Israel, from the Afghan drawdown to America’s uneasy alliance with Pakistan, from the issue of managing China to the question of intervention in Syria and response to the Arab Spring, Romney showed a different face agreeing as much as disagreeing with the President.
Probably, Romney was confident that he was on an upward trajectory in the polls and that he should do nothing that might scare away undecided voters who were leaning towards him. As some analysts contend, the shifting of Romney’s foreign policy positions is partly reflective of an America that, after spending trillions in two foreign wars, with the one in Afghanistan still on, is fairly united in not wanting another war. Romney, for one, did not want to be seen as some throwback to the Bush era foreign policy. From a gung-ho advocate of a muscular foreign policy, Romney turned overnight into a Wilsonian peacenik who desires international peace. And, he was found supporting Obama’s foreign policy positions most of the time. But, foreign policy still being an esoteric area for most of the American voters; there is some doubt if Romney’s poor showing in the third debate will matter much. Reflecting how voters in America are more concerned about domestic issues, the foreign policy debate, too, was in the risk of veering towards socio-economic issues. The Moderator in the final debate, Bob Schieffer of CBS news, had to intervene to pull the debate back into the foreign policy zone.
Even as the Republican camp resurges and stands a chance of putting their man in the White House, they are aware that some of Obama’s strengths remain formidable and that the Democratic camp will leave no stone unturned to guard those safe zones. At this time of the election cycle, when the candidates will hop from one battleground state to the other, the effort is to rope in as many undecided voters as possible. And, the debates have made it amply clear that undecided women voters are a big prize for both the parties, more so for Romney who wants to decrease the sizeable lead that Obama has among women voters. And, part of this effort is to recreate a new personality for Romney with moderate views on socio-economic issues affecting women voters. And last but not the least, President Obama is still ahead on the Electoral College votes’ counts and analysts have called this edge a protective shield. But as things stand now, the contest this year will be neck-to-neck down to November 6 and only time will tell if the Romney campaign has the wherewithal to break through Obama’s electoral votes’ safeguard.
(Monish Tourangbam is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)