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Presidential Debates: The Stanley Cup of Politics

Christopher Sands

Last night the first presidential candidates’ debate of the 2012 election took place in Denver. It was the start of a new phase in the election campaign—the final month, when a larger number of Americans, including likely and unlikely voters, begins to pay attention.

It was probably easier to be one of those voters who hasn’t been paying attention. For political junkies (and just about all of us who live within the Washington, DC Beltway count ourselves in this group) the debate was jarring: neither debater behaved according to the expectations set over the past several months.

President Barack Obama is known for his gift of gab, his charm, and likeability. He is smart, and typically in command of policy detail. And on topics like U.S. health care, he is normally passionate.

In the Denver debate, Obama was tongue-tied at several points. He looked tired, and seemed dour. As the questions got tougher, he got cranky and combative—with mild-mannered Jim Lehrer, the debate’s moderator, rather than with his opponent.

Obama was also befuddled on policy. His defense of his health care reforms was confusing and lacked detail. The president seemed unfamiliar with his opponents’ policy proposals, and lazily offered his own take on what Mitt Romney probably intended to do: a laundry list of clichés about Republican policies we’ve heard before from Democratic candidates at least since the 1932 campaign in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt caricatured Herbert Hoover.

Worst of all, Obama seemed unfamiliar with his campaign’s multimillion dollar attack ads. He failed to confront Romney on his dismissive comments about the 47 per cent of Americans who had grown too dependent upon government to vote Republican. Obama never mentioned Bain Capital, the company Romney once headed.

Mitt Romney was also surprising. Even though he’s been running for the presidency since at least 2007, most Americans perceive him to be dull, nice but somewhat robotic and perhaps a bit too perfect and plastic. Months of attack ads launched against him, first by his Republican rivals for the party’s presidential nomination, and then by Democrats, sought to define him as a heartless plutocrat with a secretive conservative agenda. Romney’s occasional gaffes — including the comment about 47 per cent of the country — appeared to confirm a negative impression.

But in the Denver debate, we saw a different Mitt Romney: silver-tongued, charming (especially when talking about his family), and in complete command of policy detail. He was passionate, optimistic about the future of the country, but concerned about its present course. He offered ideas, often in response to openings he was given by Obama’s wild mischaracterizations of his proposals.

Above all, Romney seemed presidential — that hard to define quality that most voters only know when they see it.

How did Canadians tuning in for the debate perceive the candidates on stage in Denver? Based on my Twitter feed, Canadians fall into the same two camps as Americans. Those who have been paying attention to the U.S. election campaigns so far, watching the ads on YouTube, and reading the U.S. pundits online were similarly startled by the poor performance by Barack Obama, and the strong showing by Mitt Romney. And those who only recently began to pay attention saw Romney as a credible future U.S. president and wondered where the Obama they remember from 2008 had gone.

This first debate seemed ideally-suited to have an impact on Canadian perceptions of the U.S. presidential race because it was in many ways closer to the norm in Canadian politics. Parliamentary government produces strong debaters who typically shine in one-on-one confrontations over policy detail. And Jim Lehrer was about as prominent as a moderator as the Speaker of the House of Commons is, intervening only rarely and gently.

In the United States, candidate debates tend to be more theatrical and it is rare to see politicians talk about substance for an extended period without resorting to prepared one-liners and sound bites, or appeals to the audience for approval.

There are two more debates between Obama and Romney, a “town hall” style event in New York on October 16 that will be more American in style, and a foreign policy debate in Florida on October 22 that will give the candidates a second chance at the more formal debate format used in Denver.

It is the phase of U.S. presidential campaigns that most closely resembles the Stanley Cup finals, with more people paying attention, and every game played for keeps. Romney has the advantage for now, but Obama has been to the finals before and is the reigning champion. Game on!

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