The Common Good

Debating the Value of the Debates

file404 / Shutterstock
Conceptual abstract background: Communication. file404 / Shutterstock

Why, exactly, does it matter if President Barack Obama gave a lackluster performance in the recent presidential debate?

These quadrennial campaign sideshows have nothing to do with one's capability, preparation, aptitude or suitability for the presidency.

Why does Gov. Mitt Romney's spirited performance matter? What does a “victory” by one candidate mean, other than momentary bragging rights?

Surely we know that these debates are about as meaningful as an Oscar winner's thank-you speech. What we want from a president is a steady hand in dealing with a wicked and wayward world, a collaborative spirit in bringing a broad reach to government, and a magnanimous spirit in consoling war widows, helping victims of disaster, protecting the weak from the relentless predations of the strong, and trying to preserve an “American Dream” to which all, not just a few, are invited. We want signs of character, not a telegenic mien.

Presidential debates are like first visits to possible in-laws. You hope not to belch at supper — and then you return to the world where you are actually exploring marriage and building a life.

Presidential debates are like Apple Maps vs. Google Maps. Fun to write about, an opportunity for ambitious bloggers to strut their stuff, but in the end, who cares? Tech customers aren't swayed by a maps app. They aren't that uninformed.

Neither are voters. Talking heads might explode after a debate, former CEOs might shout “conspiracy” at job-creation numbers they don't like, but I think voters are more savvy than that.

This debate nonsense sounds a general nonsense alarm. How much of the supposed ebb and flow of this campaign, the pivotal points, the polling results, and the unending sports metaphors are simply misdirection? Sly dogs keeping us off balance by barking loudly? Charlatans making us watch the handkerchief while sleight of hand goes unnoticed? Clever people spending boatloads of money to buy an election while we focus on style points, Michelle's dress, Ann's upper-crust cluelessness, Paul's boyish charm, Joe's grandfatherly solidity?

In this respect, Campaign 2012 is a comforting continuation of political theater that goes back many decades. Some great presidents were easy to lampoon, and some awful presidents presented well.

The new and disturbing element isn't the debates or the campaign-trail name-calling, truth-shading and hucksterism. The disturbing element is the advertising. Constant, demagogic, designed to frighten and to stir dark sentiments, these ads trivialize American political life and make it difficult for anyone to govern effectively.

The good news is that American voters are well versed in how to ignore ads. Except for entertaining ones like “E-Trade Baby” spots, TV ads are so ineffective in reaching us that many large advertisers no longer try. They have switched to Internet ads and are trying a scary psychological-operations tactic called “re-targeting.” But those, too, will falter. People just aren't that gullible.

Personally, I think we could hold this election tomorrow and get the same result as on November 6. But that would mess up ad revenues and talk shows. So we will endure three more debates — or, more likely, ignore them  turn our attention to contests like the World Series that truly deserve sports metaphors, and then, when the last ad dollar is spent and the last voter-suppression tactic has been tried, we will vote.

It's a shame that the world's greatest democracy has come down to this.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

Conceptual abstract background: Communication. file404 / Shutterstock

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