They are not usually about Issues. In this primary process, they are about Who Is the Best Candidate?
Who can Win?
Ever since the first televised debate between Kennedy & Nixon, voters have often judged candidates on inconsequential issues… Nixon lost the 1960 debate, and election, because of such trivia as how much did he sweat?…How much makeup did he have on?
As the story goes, voters who listened to the debate on radio were overwhelmingly convinced that Nixon had won on the issues, but Kennedy was the clear victor among those who actually watched the debate.
Kennedy won because he looked cool and composed on stage next to the Vice President. He looked like he knew what he was doing. He looked like he belonged there.
In today’s New York Times, Don Hewitt, the director and producer of the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, said ABC’s structuring of the questions was an acknowledgment that a debate entails “a big dose of show biz” and “trying to keep an audience.”
“When you’re in television,” Mr. Hewitt said, “that’s your job.”
This is what counts in debates: How does he look? Will he fight for us? How will he take the pressure? Can he be stumped? Will he make a gaffe?
When old time political bosses were picking candidates the central question they thought the voters would ask was:
IS HE ONE OF US?…….
And it is both complicated and simple and….sometimes based on the trivial. Is he too elitist? Does she really care about us? Will he take care of us?
Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts. What kind of bowler is Obama? How well can Hill throw back a shot?
Debates are an obvious testing grounds. Voters are picking the most powerful person in the world. They want answers about personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot.
Remember the only Democrats who have been elected president since John Kennedy have been southern moderates.
Bill Clinton, for all his foibles, did pass the Is He One Of Us Test
Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry did not.
The Republicans managed to stick an elitist perception on their candidacies and the Democrats didn’t stand a chance.
Come November the Republicans are going to cram this elitist perception of the Democratic nominee down the throats of the voters. They will try to “define” the Democratic nominee…just as they defined Kerry as a windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.
Obama (or Hillary) needs to be ready for this.
Obama should stick with basketball!
The “issues” are not really decisive for Democratic voters now. Obama and Hillary have virtually the same positions.
The issues are boring.
But that doesn’t mean the debates have been exercises in futility.
The most important question for Democratic voters– what the primaries are all about, now– is who can defeat McCain. All other questions are inconsequential. And this question of electability was what the recent ABC debate was all about.
Voters know that they will be lied to. During the debate when Hillary was asked if Obama can win, she lied. And when Obama was asked the same question, he lied. Everybody knew it, because what they are saying in private is …the other guy can’t win.
It doesn’t really matter who opposed the Iraq war first or whether there were snipers in Tuzla or what hate Rev. Wright spewed forth…
Of course, issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, Clinton’s pardons, Bittergate, William Ayers, and the Tuzla airport will play a role in the election.
Obama will probably be the Democratic nominee, and he will be a stronger candidate for having confronted trivial issues. ABC and Hillary Clinton will be remembered as gentle questioners compared to what the Republicans will throw at him.
Fortunately, in the general election candidates will have real issues to debate, —- the economy, the war, our position in the world, and maybe by then the voters will have decided that Obama really Is One Of Us.
(Parts of this blog were cross posted at Huffington Post)