B S Raghavan

Obama and Romney on par in first debate

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on October 04, 2012

The practice of holding a series of debates among the US presidential candidates organised as part of the run-up to the elections, going back to the one with Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon, has blossomed into a veritable institution, overseen by a Commission on Presidential Debates — with its own safeguards to ensure fairness and balance.

Everything about the debates — the format, the venue, the duration, the theme, the moderator, the choice of audience, stage arrangements — is meticulously planned and announced in advance after obtaining the approval of the parties whose nominees are in the field.

During the debates, which are watched by almost the entire electorate, the candidates argue out between themselves their respective stands on the relative merits of the full range of issues they consider to be of compelling importance, while seeking to expose the untenability or impracticality of each other’s policy platforms.

The presumption is that the debates serve as an indicator of the calibre, competence, grasp, clarity of vision, lucidity of expression and the qualities of leadership of the candidates, enabling the voters to make up their minds on the choice of the candidate they would most want to see installed as the nation’s next President.

In practice it doesn’t work out that way. Very often, the voters seem to form their judgment based on some mannerism or gaffe on the part of one or the other candidate. It is widely believed, for instance, that Richard Nixon’s supposedly “shifty’ glances and “5 o’clock shadow”, George Bush, Sr’s frequent looking at his watch, and Al Gore’s moans and sighs punctuating his responses played a major role in doing them in.

A simple slip of the tongue could cause a dip in the candidate’s fortunes, washing out all the effort put in by him, while a clever repartee may lift them when everything else was going downhill.

During the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter Debates, an unguarded statement by Ford that “there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” dashed his hopes; whereas, the witty sally of Ronald Reagan, when asked about his advanced age, that he would not make the youth of his rival, Walter Mondale, a political issue in the campaign, made him come through as a self-confident and worldly-wise candidate, winning him the election.


In other words, the handling of the substantive issues by the candidates during the debates does not by itself determine the chances of their victory or defeat. The issues may, in fact, go over the heads of the voters watching the debates.

It is the way the candidates “come off” or comport themselves, their personality as a whole as gauged by the voters, that has been universally agreed by political analysts to be the prime factor in influencing the voters.

The first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney held at Denver, Colorado, which I found to be absorbing, was entirely devoted to domestic issues, such as the fiscal deficit, taxes, unemployment, economic downturn, healthcare, immigration and the like. They may excite little interest in Indian readers and can be skipped.

Judged by the tone and tenor of facts and arguments on both sides, my overall impression is that both Obama and Romney came out even. Both were cool, calm, collected and dignified, and observed the civilities and decencies such occasions call for. Neither of them “misspoke” at any stage.

The first debate has given a headstart to Romney considering that he came to the event as the “underdog”. Recent polls have shown him to be trailing far behind Obama, with a question mark on his “likeability” because of his ‘robot’-like persona and his ‘filthy rich’ background. Media comments have constantly been harping on his being out of touch with the plight of the average American householder.

Romney had obviously prepared himself comprehensively with a view to recovering as much of the ground lost as possible. He was able to hold his own with his command over facts, his awareness of nuances of the various issues raised, his rationale for his proposals and the conviction with which he put his points across . Altogether, I found him to be a match for Obama.

However, “It’s a long way to Tipperari”, as the song goes. Let’s wait and see how the duo fare in the remaining two debates.

Published on October 04, 2012

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