30 October 2008

Drama at the debate? No Chance.

-- Originally written: 3rd October

So very little of note happened in the television debates so far. Those Obama supporters rubbing their hands in anticipation of a Palin meltdown live on TV were disappointed. Surprise, surprise. The truth is that they were always going to be disappointed for one simple reason – nothing of note ever happens in presidential or vice-presidential debates. They have always been the set pieces that promise the most but deliver the least.

A quick recap of those TV debate bombshells throughout history. 1960, Richard Nixon sports a five o’clock shadow and looks a little sweaty. No debates are held again until 1976 where Republican VP candidate Bob Dole appears to blame World Wars One and Two on the Democrats. In 1988, Democrat Veep nominee Lloyd Bentsen delivers his “you’re no Jack Kennedy’ zinger to a startled Dan Quayle. Bush-Quayle win the election. 1992 George Bush is spotted glancing at his watch and third party VP candidate Admiral James Stockdale admits to having his hearing aid turned off. 2004 a suspicious looking crease in President Bush’s jacket leads to theories that he is being fed lines from offstage. And... that’s about it.

Actually, I must admit to exaggerating for effect. There are two moments that stand out as genuinely injurious to the candidates: in 1976 Gerald Ford’s assertion that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” and Michael Dukakis’s 1988 unemotional and rambling answer to an outrageous question about what his reaction would be to his wife being raped and murdered. But those moments, at best, can be said to have confirmed existing doubts surrounding the candidates rather than blowing the campaign wide open.

The problem is that these set pieces are just that – set pieces; endlessly prepped, rehearsed and largely devoid of spontaneity – and because of this (with some rare exceptions) the result is mostly the same. The only time a person ‘wins’ (a meaningless term loved by the punditry) is when there was someone who was expected to lose, just because they surpassed their low expectations. The bumbling Ronald Reagan was expected to be roasted by the experienced President Cater in 1980 but held his own and so came out on top. A similar scenario played out in 2000 with the tongue-tied George W up against Harvard debater Al Gore.

So no surprise that Sarah Palin didn’t morph into her Saturday Night Live parody, Joe Biden failed to stray recklessly off-message, McCain didn’t lose his famous temper and Obama managed to avoid insulting small town America once again. They know their lines, they’ve been here before and the road-show will plough on until the next debate where – hopefully tempting fate here – not much will happen.

By Ross English

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