How to win a (vice) presidential debate
Why a debate winner may not necessarily make a great president
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 09:10
Mitt Romney was the widely acknowledged winner of the first presidential debate. Many Americans were pleasantly surprised by Romney’s enthusiasm and charisma. Obama, on the other hand, was criticized for his passivity and lack of passion during his somewhat perfunctory debate performance. The following week, Joe Biden was generally called the “winner” of the vice-presidential debate. Democrats celebrated his willingness to directly critique, refute and criticize Paul Ryan’s points. He called Romney out on his “47 percent” gaffe and made some truly inspired remarks about abortion, both issues that went untouched during the first presidential debate. In this debate, Ryan played the more passive role. It is clear that Americans love to see clash during presidential debates, but it’s less certain that the candidate who performs the most aggressively is necessarily the most desirable.
The numbers show that Americans want candidates who are willing to attack their opponents’ claims openly and aggressively; candidates who engage in direct debate perform very well in polls following the debates. Americans do not want candidates who politely address their opponents’ claims by reiterating talking points. Indeed, Obama’s advisers probably scrambled to prepare him for yesterday’s debate, advising him to be less professorial—and less polite.
But is it really preferable to elect candidates who are prone to confrontational and combative behavior? In general, probably not. The primary roles of the president include representing America internationally and acting as commander-in-chief of the military. As such, the United States needs a president who can remain calm and collected when faced with trying diplomatic talks or when confronted with difficult militaristic decisions. President George W. Bush serves as an example of the dangers of a reactionary president when it comes to international relations. Additionally, the United States needs a president who displays the ability to collaborate with both sides of the aisle—a president willing to listen and compromise.
America’s desire for a president who can be confrontational, but can also remain calm and passive when faced with a difficult situation, is quite a tall order. Biden and Romney—both of whom were more confrontational during the debates than Obama or Ryan—are also both more gaffe-prone, and can be more rash than their opposition. Obama, while sometimes criticized for seeming too professorial and removed, has had a relatively gaffe-free campaign and first-term presidency.
His responses to Middle Eastern conflict have been measured and reasonable, and he’s been very successful at establishing diplomatic relationships with countries that often prove difficult to negotiate with. In many ways, President Obama’s weakness during the debates has actually been a strong asset during his presidency. While it would be nice to see a more impassioned and engaged performance from President Obama, perhaps Americans should consider the implications of such a performance when it comes time to cast their votes in November.