Obama vs. Romney: Cracking down on the presidential debates

Graphic by Phil Waheed.
Graphic by Phil Waheed.

In a democracy, one would hope that an election debate would serve to further enlighten and inform the electorate.

Unfortunately, the U.S. presidential debates served more as populist entertainment than as a crash-course for undecided voters.

The second debate between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney took place at Hofstra University in New York.

In an interesting twist the debate was modeled on a “town hall” meeting with the audience asking the presidential candidates questions. The questions were all pre-approved by moderator Candy Crowley of CNN, making it a bit more controlled than an actual town hall meeting.

During the debate promises were made, fingers were pointed and the undecided voters who participated in the event were repeatedly thanked for their “important” and “great” questions.

Both candidates did well in the debate with neither making any particularly damaging mistakes.

Obama, whose lackluster performance in the first debate shocked many pundits and supporters, was back to his old self in this one. He was more confrontational with Romney, accusing him repeatedly of saying things that were “not true.”

According to USA Today, Obama claimed Romney was lying so many times during the debate, that Taggart Romney (eldest son of the Republican candidate) wanted to “rush down to the debate stage and take a swing at him.” If this contemplation of violence doesn’t demonstrate the excessively hyper-partisan nature of American politics, I don’t know what does.

Romney held his own without his son coming to his defense. As in the first debate, the former governor of Massachusetts looked confident and spoke with conviction. He scored political points by attacking Obama’s record on job creation and his management of the economy.

Needless to say, the fiery debate made for good political theatre.

Ultimately the biggest winners in last Tuesday’s debate were the fact-checkers, who were gainfully employed dispelling the many half-truths being spewed out by the presidential candidates. If viewers thought they would be more informed by the end of the night, they were sorely mistaken.

Obama claimed he could spend more on social programs by cutting military expenditures on wars in the Middle East. Unless Obama can multiply $100 bills like magic, there’s no way that cutbacks can save money. The United States has been borrowing money in order to finance the military; ending overseas conflict will not necessarily mean more money to spend on Medicare and public schools.

Romney tried to score points among women voters by saying he led one of the most gender-diverse cabinets in his state’s history. The presidential candidate said he wanted more women in his cabinet and had looked through “whole binders full of women” for female candidates to appoint to various positions. While he was patting himself on the back, The Christian Science Monitor was reporting that it was the nonpartisan Massachusetts Government Appointments Project that instigated this process in order to finally end the underrepresentation of women in government.

Questions also remain about the viability of Romney’s plan to cut taxes, which the Republican candidate touted during the debate. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center essentially said in a study that his numbers don’t add up.

That’s not to say that there weren’t ounces of truth mixed in with the doublespeak, but there was still an incredible amount of untruths and half-truths in the debate.

It’s disappointing that third-party candidates don’t receive nearly any coverage in the mainstream press. The main third party running is the Green Party run by Dr. Jill Stein. As long as mainstream debates do not allow third-party candidates in, voters will have fewer choices and American democracy will suffer for it.

Even though the American electoral process has its flaws, there is still one thing from the U.S. debates that Canada should strive to emulate in its own leaders’ debates next election. It quickly becomes apparent, after watching the presidential debates, that Canada should have multiple election debates like the United States has.

During the 2011 federal election campaign, we only had two leaders’ debates, and because one was in English and the other was in French, they covered many of the same topics just in different languages. Neither debate managed to get past general questions about governance or the economy to inquire about specific issues.

In Canadian debates, we’d probably never see questions about women’s issues or about how a leader would differentiate himself or herself from another. (Romney was asked, “how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?”)

While there are some things we, as Canadians, can learn from the U.S. presidential debates, we should also count ourselves lucky for the vibrancy of our democracy and for the diversity of voices present in our political landscape.

As for Americans, they need to wake up and realize that there’s a wealth of other options out there beyond the confines of the two major parties.

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