A presidential debate is neither a military fight nor a sporting event.
But the public rhetoric that’s likely to occur Wednesday night as Democrat incumbent President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney debate for the first time probably will sound like a game and a war simultaneously.
“In American society, we use the metaphor of war to describe debate,” said Ryan Neville-Shepard, IUPUC communications professor. “It’s who ‘shot somebody down’ or who ‘self-destructed.’ But even though it’s fun to look at it as a battle, that’s not what’s going to inform us.”
Starting Wednesday, Neville-Shepard will join Mill Race Center Director and self-described “political junkie” Bob Pitman at the Columbus Learning Center during each of the upcoming October presidential debates. The two are expected to analyze the performances and content before discussing the views and perspectives of the audience.
“Debates can really make a difference, especially for the candidate that has the most to prove,” Pitman said. “I’ll bet there will be some noteworthy one-liners Wednesday night.”
But Neville-Shepard feels that when a presidential debate is treated like a sporting event or fight, it moves us away from the American models of civic engagement or political deliberation.
“What we really want as voters is to figure out what the issues are that interest us.” Neville-Shepard said. “We want to figure out which candidate represents our issue, our collection of issues, our self-interests and society’s interests as well. What we look for is the person who represents our issues and instills the most confidence in us that they will succeed.”
Pitman suggests that you watch for questions during the debates that put a candidate on the defensive regarding an issue that is hard to defend.
“For example, Obama will have to explain a health care initiative that isn’t very popular at the moment,” Pitman said. “But Romney will have to explain why he’s now against it while he supported it in Massachusetts.”
Neville-Shepard expects Romney will try to avoid questions about social issues because he knows that jobs and the economy are the issues Americans are most interested in.
“But Barack Obama feels he has advantages by talking about social issues,” Neville-Shepard said. “Especially after the Todd Aiken incident. He knows that when he talks about them, more Americans are more sympathetic to his campaign.”
Aiken is the Republican Senate candidate from Missouri who said last month that women have biological defenses to prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” making legal abortion unnecessary. A number of polls show that many moderate voters strongly disapprove not only of Aiken’s comment but of the number of Republican leaders who rose up to defend him.
“It’s not to Romney’s advantage to talk about these types of social issues in public, or he’s not going to win,” Neville-Shepard said.
Both Pitman and Neville-Shepard feel that Obama is going to have to defend his record on the economy.
“The tea party and the Republicans have done a really good job of framing Obama as a person who is somewhat weak on the economy,” Neville-Shepherd said. “He’s going to have to not only defend his policies, he also has to convince voters we’re heading in the right direction and that our economy is going to improve in his second term.”
Pitman believes the still-sluggish economy exposes political weaknesses in both candidates that they need to overcome.
“Obama must be able to own the economy while also offering a clear vision of how we will move forward without saddling ourselves further in debt,” Pitman said. “But at the same time, Romney will have to defend how tax cuts for the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans also won’t drive us further into debt.”
And then there’s the “oops factor” — those verbal slips that can make a candidate suddenly appear incompetent or out-of-touch.
“Is it unfair? Yes, of course, it’s unfair,” said Neville-Shepard. “Campaigns are long. They require long hours, and often people are worn down and emotional. They just have a temporary lapse.”
But he also understands that Americans want their leaders to be competent, intelligent and project an image of being in charge.
“They want to know that their leaders are in control of the situation, and the ‘oops factor’ sometimes conveys that, while a candidate is really good in scripted moments, they aren’t in control when they are speaking from their hearts.”
Both men also acknowledge that post-debate pundits, analysts and comedians also have a strong impact on the decisions voters ultimately make. And perhaps no networks have a greater impact than ideological news channels such as FOX and MSNBC.
“The influence of these channels is hard felt,” Neville-Shepard said. “They are constantly looking for moments of weakness. And when they find them, you will start seeing more of those stories in the mainstream news. And then they start being picked up by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the other nighttime comedians.”
He adds that while the post-debate spins and laughs might be good TV, they lead Americans away from the substantive issues in politics and don’t really tell us much about how somebody is going to lead.
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