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‘Power will show the man': A good debate format helps too

Thinking it Through

The ancient wisdom, expressed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, regarding the performance of office holders and the challenge of judging them well, is as true today as it ever was. We have found out what kind of man Barack Obama is by his conduct in office, and it is not pretty. Last week in the first debate, we also got a good look at Mitt Romney, the man who seeks to replace him in the Presidency. The almost universal judgment is that Romney came out on top.

It is well to remember that the framers of our Constitution had high expectations for the nation’s highest office holder and great confidence that the Electoral College system they designed would usually provide a “fit choice.” As Alexander Hamilton said in The Federalist No. 68, “It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”

We show no disrespect to the founding fathers if we determine that not all choices have been good. Whether it is political economy or foreign policy, the current President is a serious candidate to succeed James Buchanan as the nation’s worst president.

Obama’s failings are not only personal but ideological. That is, he had difficulty defending his dismal record because, as his words and facial expressions made clear, he felt no great obligation to do so. For Obama and liberals generally, liberalism needs no defense because it is inherently superior to any political alternative.

His complacency is not shaken even by the prolonged economic recession and the collapse of his foreign policy. Anyone who thinks that the most Americans so dense that they will fall for fairy tales like “we’re on the right track” at home and that absurd anti-Muslim videos cause riots abroad is under a delusion.

The only prediction I have felt safe in making has been that the next president of the United States will be a Republican or a Democrat. But if substance can triumph over appearance, I predict Romney will be elected. The next few weeks will be very difficult ones for President Obama, if the first debate is any indication.

For Romney clearly was better prepared, both in stating has positions on the domestic issues and countering Obama’s claims or criticisms. He had not just one rebuttal, for example, but three. While Obama was looking down at the podium or looking irritated or bored, Romney scored point after point. Even liberals admitted that Obama had been skunked.

Naturally, one would expect Obama to change tactics for the next encounter, a town-meeting format, and regain his edge. His methods were on display Thursday morning when he went on the campaign trail to allege that the real Romney was not present at the debate. Obama is maintaining that the deceptive campaign advertisements (e.g., “Romney may be a felon”) his side has been airing are the “real” Romney and the man who spoke for himself unfiltered was a fake.

Based on his first performance, I predict that Romney will do equally well in his next two debate appearances (the last on foreign policy), while Obama becomes more strident but no more persuasive. Tomorrow night I predict that Paul Ryan will best Joe Biden in the vice presidential debate. Ryan is formidable on budgetary issues and no less so on fundamental principles. Biden is a fighter but Ryan is a thinker.

It is not clear that the founders expected the president to be a great orator or debater, but over the years the bar has been raised, most dramatically by Abraham Lincoln. But it has also been lowered, as evidenced by the conventional wisdom that the candidate with the best debate line should get preference. Unfortunately, the media-based format has contributed to that lowering by confining speakers to two-minutes or less for each question.

Wisely, the presidential debate commission this year departed from the long-standing format and permitted each man to speak and respond to questions in less restrictive 15-minute slots. But I think that Newt Gingrich had it right when he proposed the traditional debate format of opening statement, rebuttal and counter rebuttal for those 90 minutes.

Our future should not be decided by the convenience of the news media or the lowest common denominator. We need to see and hear office seekers outside of the media “box.” The more we do so, the more we’ll learn.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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