For as long as there have been presidential debates on television -- that is, since 1960 -- they have featured gotcha lines. Some years the debates have consisted of little more. Delivering a good one has been the object of the game at least since Lloyd Bentsen sandbagged poor Dan Quayle in 1988. His rebuke would become a standard entry in the lexicon of presidential debates: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." (Prolonged shouts and applause.)
The kibitzers in the press corps and political buffs in general tend to remember that kind of thing -- even if they forget that Dan Quayle was actually elected vice president that year. Maybe the voters aren't as interested in clever repartee as those who engage in it think we are.
The punch lines may catch the media's attention, and even merit a permanent footnote in the chronicles of American presidential elections. But the people who sit through the debates at home or in the nearest bar may actually be interested in substance, not shine -- in the issues discussed, not the "prolonged shouts and applause" noted in the official transcript of Bentsen-Quayle back in '88.
Electing a president of the United State is no light thing, as obsessed as we all may be with the sporting aspect of the race -- who wins, who loses, how many passes completed or runs batted in. But it's the quality of play, not the fate of the players, that counts most in this game. Did this debate raise or lower the level of civic discourse in the Republic? That is the question that matters. Or should.
Wednesday night's first presidential debate of this largely undistinguished campaign ("No Ideas, Please -- We're American") provided the wonkiest and most revealing contrast yet between the candidates. That's an unusual combination -- and a refreshing one. The candidates actually exchanged views, not just jabs.
Perhaps for the first time in this long, long trek to Election Day 2012, the choices before the American people began to take clear shape, like a great mountain finally emerging in the distance after a long night's march to morning. How account for that? Maybe it was the almost Benedictine rule of silence imposed on the audience. No cheers or applause, boos and hisses, no distractions.
Result: The morning after, the questions facing the American people was clearer. And in the end not too poli-sci complicated after all: Do you think the country is on the right course when it comes to the economy? What do the job figures, the deficits and national debt, the record number of Americans out of work or on food stamps or just losing hope say? If they say we're living in the best of all possible worlds, that this is the best America can do, that things are just fine and dandy, or even that they're improving and will get even better under this president's great leadership ... then the decision come Election Day should be easy. Re-elect the president and his team. Forward! Just give the command: Unsteady as she goes! But if you believe America can do better, and do it with this year's presidential challenger, then switch horses even in the middle of this (muddy) stream.
Yes, each of the debaters played their share of gotchas, and there were stretches when they just seemed to be throwing numbers at each other, but by the end of the evening, the basic choices facing voters November 6 were clear:
Shall we let the market determine economic outcomes through free and fair competition, or does government know best?
Shall we trust the states, those 50 laboratories of democracy, to come up with the best solutions to our current fix through trial and error, or does Washington know best? Maybe we should let it pick winners and losers. (Or just losers, anyway, to judge by this administration's Solyndras and other examples of its crony capitalism.)
Which candidate has the better track record in both private enterprise and public service -- a president who's known for his promise of hope and change? Or should we give a former governor and businessman with a record of solid performance in Massachusetts, in saving the Olympics, and in turning around all kinds of private enterprises a chance to turn around the biggest enterprise of all, the United States of America?
For some of us, to ask such questions is to answer them. Others won't even agree with the questions, which is the way it ought to be in a free country.
After the debate Wednesday night, it should be clear that not only do the candidates advocate different approaches to the economy but that each seems to have a different perception of economic reality: Mitt Romney objects to cutting $716 billion from Medicare to finance Obamacare and gutting its prescription drug program (Medicare Advantage). Barack Obama refuses to admit that's what he's in the process of doing. Instead, he says Mitt Romney favors the tax deduction for transferring jobs overseas (a deduction Mitt Romney says he's never heard of), and that he would add trillions to the immense and still growing federal deficit -- a proposal that also comes as a surprise to the Republican candidate.
Serious people argue about ideas, not facts, for the facts can be determined. And surely all these supposed facts will be as the minutiae of the debate are hashed out. Let us have faith that, as the campaign continues, the facts will become clearer. And so will reality. Great thing, democratic debate. The Greeks may have had a point.
As for the style of the debaters, if that matters, and it does, for spirit is all, it was clear that Mitt Romney came into his own Wednesday night, at last being able to talk directly to the American people without the usual layer of commentators intruding themselves between him and We the People. He had a good night. The president didn't.
Mr. Obama seemed a little off his feed, looking downcast and quite lost without his faithful teleprompter. He seemed hesitant, small, lacking in confidence. What happened? Didn't his aides show him the latest pre-debate polls? He's gliding to victory. Yet he seemed eager to get this thing over with. ("Jim, you may want to move on to another topic.") I expected him to start checking his wristwatch any minute, the way George H.W. Bush did at a telling moment in one of his presidential debates/ordeals.
It was all enough to bring back memories of my high school debate coach, Mister Evans, and imagine what he might have told the president of the United States on this glum occasion: "Straighten up. Look your honorable opponent and the judges in the eye. Act confident even if you don't feel that way. Be a happy warrior. Pull up your socks and get with it. And for goodness sakes, drop that hang-dog look. You've got a strong case. Make it. Remember who you are. You can do better than that." And, surely, the president will. Let's just hope the country does.