NEW YORK – What is the point of a presidential debate? In the context of American presidential elections, “debate” is something of a misnomer. When former French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, that was a debate – addressing substantive issues and lasting more than two hours. By contrast, presidential debates in the United States are more like staged performances, where the answers to every possible question have been rehearsed endlessly with teams of coaches and advisers.
The candidates in US debates address carefully selected journalists who rarely follow up on a question. And the candidates’ performances are scrutinized less on the substance of their arguments than on their presentation, body language, facial tics, unguarded sighs, smiles, sneers, and inadvertent eye rolling. Does the candidate come across as a snob, or a friendly guy whom one can trust? Do the smiles look real or fake?
These “optics” can be of great importance. After all, Richard Nixon’s race against John Kennedy in 1960 is said to have been lost on television: Kennedy looked cool and handsome, while Nixon scowled into the camera, with sweat trickling down his five o’clock shadow. In his debates with Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter came across as smug and humorless, and Reagan as a friendly old uncle. Carter lost.
In 2000, Al Gore, was unable to make up his mind about which role he wished to play in his debates with George W. Bush, so he looked shifty and inauthentic, changing from arrogant to patronizing and back again. He had the better arguments, but he lost the “debates” (and the election) nonetheless.