Debates emphasize candidates

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A Presidential candidate appears shaky in the first of the debates. He looks sweaty and off his stride. His challenger is tan and speaks confidently, endearing himself to the television viewers. When the election comes, the results are very close, and voter fraud may be the cause for the winner?s slight margin of victory. Sound familiar? No, it?s not the 2000 election ? it?s 1960. And just like in 1960, people appear to be paying more attention to how the candidates appear than what they say.
The difference was so great back in 1960 that people who listened to the debates over the radio thought that Nixon won, and television viewers widely agreed that Kennedy was the winner. While nearly all people nowadays watch the debates on television (or occasionally on streaming webcasts), this amplifies the focus on how well the candidates appear. Both sides know this. Among the ground rules for the debates (listed officially in the Memorandum of Understanding, available at are that the temperature remain ?appropriate? throughout the debate, no ?risers or any other device to create an impression of elevated height? be used, and that each candidate is only allowed to ?move about in a predesignated area? that may not overlap with the other candidate?s. The complaint that the debates are little more than opportunities for Kerry and Bush to spew prepackaged sound bites at us has a lot of truth to it.
With two Presidential debates and the sole Vice-Presidential debate completed, there is only one Presidential debate remaining this year. Kerry was widely seen as the winner in the first Presidential debate, while the Vice-Presidential debate and second Presidential debate emerged with neither side being able to claim a conclusive victory. The question is: What does winning the debate mean? More and more, it is appearance that matters, rather than what is actually said.
William Saletan, chief political correspondent for, excoriated Kerry for missing an ?opportunity to score points for candor? in the second debate. Liz Marlantes, speaking in the Christian Science Monitor, said that the Vice-Presidential debate unfolded as people expected, specifically on the ?definite contrast in styles ? Cheney came across as serious, sober, even-keeled.... Edwards came across as sincere, empathetic.? This was the first thing mentioned, even before the points that Edwards and Cheney raised. Certainly, a great deal of material was covered by the Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, but generally, it was buried under the feelings that each candidate inspired.
Certainly, there are places where style matters. People will not take positions seriously if they are held by someone who appears mentally unstable, even if the position itself makes perfect sense. There is also an expectation of how a statesman is supposed to act. When one fails to do so ? Khrushchev about to bang a table with his shoe at the UN, Dean?s scream ? he undercuts his ability to deal with others both inside and outside the country effectively. Bush certainly showed his frustration in the first debate, jumping to respond to a point and then having to pause several seconds to phrase himself in a way that wouldn?t give more red meat to those collecting ?Bushisms.? Whether this poor showing would continue was answered in the second debate, where the more informal town hall format allowed Bush to move around and come across much more calmly. With this came a commensurately better showing in the post-debate polls.
The best suggestion that I have for those people who are interested in finding out the candidates? positions on everything from foreign policy with the Axis of Evil to the proper ways to handle tort reform is to go to the primary sources ? the candidates? websites, position papers, and records. The platforms of the candidates speak to what they believe in more clearly than any one-minute rebuttal ever can, and though even these platforms are crafted to appeal to the most people, the records always reflect what each man truly believes in.