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Yesterday afternoon I was at a meeting when one of the participants flatly declared s/he wouldn't watch the debate because s/he knew for whom s/he was voting. No need to go through the trauma of watching! I was dismayed. But thinking about it today, I did wonder if the debates are anything more than a punching bag for the media (including dotCommonweal). Moderator Martha Raddatz has been declared the real winner of last night's debate and she certainly kept her cool and herded the VP candidates with poise and calm.Last evening's dotCommonweal commentfest was fun, but in the light of day, it looks surreal. Canada? the Navy? John Kennedy? What was it all about?So did you watch the debate? Will you watch the next two? Are they worth it? If so, what did you learn? intuit? decide? 

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Hi, Margaret.Yes, I watched. (I love Centre College. And Hofstra. Personal reasons.)No debate (or bishop or editor) can influence my vote. I'm a Democrat. I didn't learn or intuit or decide anything. But it was mildly interesting to see yet another example of how easily "pro-life" "values" are discarded when something important is at stake. Now that Ryan has dropped Akin and embraced Mitt, his anti-abortion views have softened. Will he be denied Communion?

Debates can seem like a waste of time, but at this point everything in this absurd long slog of a campaign can seem absurd. Clearly, the electorate is fluid, moreso than usual, and many are looking for signs and directions. The debates can be entertainment, and they can be much more style over substance, but they can also illuminate real differences and and the characters of the candidates. Above all, I think it's important to continue the debates because they are one of the few venues where the candidates can square off in our non-parliamentary democracy. Remember the Cheney-Edwards debate? That should have been great, and was a serious snoozer. But it's important to keep them going, whatever the merits from election cycle to election cycle. IMHO...

The reason people hate watching the debates is because they're sick of the candidates from the campaign ads. The campaign season is too damn long and the adverts appeal to the lowest common denominator. If I get one more robocall from Romney I'm changing my phone number.

I think the debates are important because they put the candidates on record. The ads can always be sluffed off as some PR man's opinion. The debates dispel ambiguity, though I won't be surprised if Mitt changes his song yet again if Obama inches past him again. The man stands securely atop a see-saw.

Of course I watched them, even though I already know who am going to vote for. They're great political theater, and despite themselves, personality and priorities come through.A fun compilation of some vice-presidential debate highlights is at:

P.S. I still feel sorry, though, for Adm Stockdale.

P. S. Debates are an opportunity to watch body language. Character counts, and body language often reveals character.

The first debate between the presidential candidates seems to have genuinely altered some perceptions and caused some movement in the polls. So they seem to have some impact, at least sometimes.I agree with David G and Jean that being able to see the candidates themselves, unfiltered through ads, can be helpful. If the veep candidate debates went away, I don't know that our country would be much worse off.

JBruns: great PBS clip. Cheney really dressed down Edwards for his poor attendance record!!! Looks like the principal of Podunk High reprimanding the homecoming king.

Apart from his sympathy for Admiral Stockdale, I'm with jbruns. Provided of course that one's standards for "great political theater" are very, very low. Though my wife is as deeply a dyed Democrat as I am, she thinks that I'm off my rocker for having sat through all of last night's performance.

I fell asleep 10 minutes into the presidential debate (worked better than Ambien), my 12 year old managed to stick it out to tell me Romney won the day. After watching Obama go into freefall in the various polls after that debate, I decided to watch the VP debate. I understand why some folks find Biden obnoxious, but I like his politics, so I appreciate his aggressiveness. It's a refreshing change from the Demo-weenies my party generates. (Mike Lupica compared the debate last night to something of a barroom brawl, with both guys going at it). Last night was entertaining enough that I'll watch the next Presidential debate, but if it's as boring as the first, it will be my last.I think the debates are important because it lets the candidates respond to each other directly in real time, without the carefully vetted messaging that happens when they're speaking solo on the stump. I found the remarks about Iran last night fascinating (Are some people really seriously thinking of going to war again?)But the debates haven't changed how I'll vote at all. And I would be surprised if it changes undecideds much; the "undecideds" I know don't really care that much one way or the other about who will be president.

@Bernard. Admiral Stockdale was a genuine war hero and a decent man. He was taken totally out of his element and cynically thrust on the political stage by Ross Perot. I think he literally didn't know, at that time, what he was getting into.

You know when you're reduced to whining about the debate moderator, like Fox News is doing this morning, you know your team lost the debate.I watch the debates not because they will influence my voting [I don't get Republicans ever since I learned how to read when I was five-years old.].I watch the debates because they are the closest thing we have to political opera. [I guess it's the Italian in me?] It's like going to a performance of a Greek play, or a Shakespearean play: I'm familiar with the plot and characters - I just love to see how the actors embody their characters and how they render the underlying comic/tragic narrative.So far in this year's opera, in Act I we have seen the hero's quest/dream threatened by his mindless nemesis, and then the hero was rescued by his faithful "Sancho Panza." I suspect in Act II the hero will walk among the immortal political gods in Vahalla and find his golden shield and sword to restore his fighting spirit. Watch for the battle to be engaged in Act III when all the blood will fly when foreign policy is slated to be the focus of that debate.We know that Obama can sing a la Al Green ("I'mmmm, sooooh in love with you ...). But can he sing Wagner or Puccini?BTW: There is still time for some "extra-curricular" event that could effect the outcome of the election [like Kennedy's "Missiles of October"], where the President orders a military strike in retaliation for the murder of our Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens. [It's beginning to look more and more like the supposed US "consulate" compound in Benghazi was actually a CIA operations headquarters - right down to the former military black-ops "guards" that were killed with the ambassador. That would certainly explain why the Obama administration has had a very fluid rendition of the facts of the event: The administration just can't say too much because they can't compromise their sources and methods. The morality of these kind of dark operations aside, we will have to wait and see how this affair works itself out.]

I enjoyed Biden and Ryan sparring. Biden has heart.Ryan has numbers.I like it from the heart.And for Afghanistan: Biden says we will be out by end of 2014, and Ryan says the same except for conditions???

Afghanistan 2014: I think Ryan said we shouldn't tell anyone we're out by 2014. Not even our coalition partners.

"P.S. I still feel sorry, though, for Adm Stockdale."He wouldn't want you to feel sorry for him. It was beyond his control that most Americans do not understand the Socratic method and were not familiar with Epitectus or Antoninus. Funnily enough, it is in large part because of the teachings of Admiral Stockdale that I have not voted since 1996 when I voted for Mr. Perot, primarily due to his POW-MIA advocacy.

@Joseph Jaglowicz (10/12, 1:30 pm) It seems to me that one thing that was at least partly exposed/revealed at last night's debate is that Ryan doesn't even have numbers. Or more to the point, his (and Romney's) numbers don't add up. And it's not because Ryan and Romney don't know enough about numbers, budgets, balance sheets, etc. It's because they're...well, lying.

As for Afghanistan, I understood Ryan to be saying that the Romney plan is for indefinite warfare in Afghanistan, well beyond 2014 if "necessary".

Do I remember correctly that in debates past that the audience was not required to remain silent? Wouldn't it be interesting to see and hear what they were thinking in these two debates? Yes, it would.

Sometimes I wonder why I watch the debates. It seems as though for each side and the pundits it becomes a matter of making and finding "gotcha" statements. I was taken aback by Paul Ryan's reference to the seventh week ultrasound of his first child and how the foetus looked like a "bean." (Was it his attempt to show some heart?) It seemed a bit immature to me but, then again the incident occurred when he was younger. Thirty years ago when ultrasounds were not as sophisticated, I saw my son in his eighth week of life with his two arms moving and two feet kicking. He didn't look like a bean to me, even though his head was not quite distinguishable from his body.

Jim Jenkins:"It's beginning to look more and more like the supposed US "consulate" compound in Benghazi was actually a CIA operations headquarters - right down to the former military black-ops "guards" that were killed with the ambassador. That would certainly explain why the Obama administration has had a very fluid rendition of the facts of the event:"All along I have been thinking that there was more to this story than meets the eye. Will any of this come out in the congressional investigation chaired by the paragon of integrity, Darrell Issa?This whole campaign is shaping into a perfect storm against the Obama-Biden ticket. The event in Libya, the president's poor debate performance, the HHS mandate. The USCCB has just posted a refutation of Biden's words at last nights debate:With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institutionCatholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospitalnone has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.

I agree with Jean Raber again. I disagree with David Gibson about the electorate being fluid. Heck, by the next presidential debate, maybe the election will be effectively over as a result of the early voters who just want to make the robocalls go away. The only thing fluid in this situation is a mere handful of "undecideds" most of whom are undecided because being such is a chance to become an American Idol if the TV crew shows up in their neighborhood. The true "undecideds" will starve to death, like Burden's ass, on election day because they can't decide which hay pile to head for.

I'll watch *recordings* of the debates. They show how well politicians can handle performance pressure and how well - how skilfully and yet honestly - they can negotiate the foggy territory where truth and falsehood intermingle. That's a large part of governing well in a democracy.Unfortunately, the debate format employed here almost requires the candidates to oversimplify and all but encourages them to dissemble, if not to lie.

I surprised myself by watching it all the way to the end, contrary to my anticipation. Martha may have some civil leadership potential worth pursuing. A useful addition for some candidates would be a date-stamp inserted automatically whenever the candidate's views are brought up; for example: "Mr. R________'s position [09/23/2012] on abortion/Iran/47%/middle-class/Syria/.". The form of these debates is a carryover from a time when the primary record was a network TV show followed by the next day's newspapers. Today, a realtime nationwide flood of professional and amateur comment, fact-checking, replays, etc. is part of the process. It is interesting to consider how to serve best the intended public good starting with a clear view of the communications involved in the 21st century.

Are there any specific video clips of Ryan's comments on Afghanistan. I swear I heard him say that Romney and he agree with the Democrats to get troops out of the country by end of 2014 --- but on condition that...blah, blah, blah. Foggy.Not me, I don't think.But Ryan, me thinks.

"Debate" is a misnomer for most of what happens during these televised events. I'm no longer surprised by how often a candidate doesn't answer the moderator's question, or gives it but a momentary effort before jumping to internalized script that's been practiced for weeks in prep sessions. Bring back Lincoln and Douglas.Also, I wish Biden would stop talking about Scranton, his hometown. He left Scranton for Delaware when he was 9 or 10. I was also born in Scranton and I left when I was a bit younger than Biden was, and though I still have family in the Scranton area, I dont consider it my hometown. The jaded part of me thinks that last nights invocation of Scranton had more to do with Pennsylvanias 20 electoral votes (and Delawares 3) than anything else. Finally, I think Ryan missed a teaching moment on the abortion question. Though he made reference to his pro-life beliefs being premised on more than Catholic doctrine, he let Biden play the Cuomo card that has provided cover for pro-choice Catholic politicians for decades.

@Joseph Jaglowicz (10/12, 3:13 pm) Here's a link to ABC's transcript of the debate. Raddatz' Afghanistan question is a bit less than halfway down the page linked below, with the conversation continuing onto the next page., I took Ryan's "fogginess" about the 2014 deadline for US troop withdrawal as a signal that there's a real possibility (probability?) that a Romney administration would adopt an Afghanistan policy that Pres. Obama rejected in late 2009---the option of keeping 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan for another decade.

Also, I wish Biden would stop talking about Scranton, his hometown.william collier,Actually, it was Ryan who brought it up:

REP. RYAN: Joe and I are from similar towns.Hes from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Im from Janesville, Wisconsin. You know what the unemployment rate in Scranton is today?

Biden himself mentioned Scranton only once, near the end of the debate:

And he's talking about the places I grew up in, my neighbors in Scranton [Pennsylvania] and Claymont [Delaware].

I didn't see the part of the debate where Ryan mentioned Scranton, David, so I owe Joe an apology. Next time we're both in town at the same time hanging out with our homies at one of the local establishments, I'll buy him a brewskie. :)

I consider presidential/vp debates to be as genuine and meaningful as pro werestling. I do not like pro wrestling, not one bit. I think it is an accurate measure of how deeply we have fallen.Presidential debates are just as bad in every way. Let me pick the low point. Dan Quayle was not known as the brightest bulb in the box and there is no way I would have voted for a party that nomitated him for VP.That said, Bentsen's comment was despicable, disgusting and stomach turning. It's been downhill since.I'd rather inspect my dog's excrement for worms that watch a political debate.Your mileage may vary.

Joe McFaulHow did you ever come up with that image? Whew!

Helen --The USCCB didn't refute Biden, they changed the subject. Biden was talking about the hospitals not having to providing contraceptives, etc., to their patients. The bishops then said words to the effect, that the HHS now requires the hospitals to pay for the contraceptives of their employees. Total non sequitur. Paying for contraceptives is not the same as providing them. Even some of the bishops have paid for such insurance policies in the past, not viewing them as material cooperation with evil. Yes, that qualification again makes the issue one of prudence, not simply absolute norms.

@ Helen:"A perfect storm" to confront the reelection of President Obama. Maybe? Who knows what "October surprise" either campaign is trying to hatch?As Master Yoda once said: "Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future."

I wondered about Mr Ryan's statements during the debate that he couldn't separate his religious beliefs from his public positions. Regarding his view that abortions should be legal in the case of rape, incest and to save the mother's life, doesn't that contradict Catholic teaching on abortion?I could see Ryan saying that he is relatively more pro-life than Biden, at least on abortion, but I don't see how he can say his position on abortion reflects his Catholic faith.

Didn't watch. I was at the student Mass. Plan to have dinner with friends next Tuesday. Don't get me wrong: I will vote early and I will work the polls all day on November 6th. Election Day is one of the greatest days of the year. These "debates" are a thin attempt to inject the culture of celebrity into the political process. Debate? Please. If we were serious about debate, we would have the issues headlining, not the talking heads.The VP debate the is most irrelevant of all. These guys weren't even chosen by their parties. They were hand-picked by guys who, at the time, weren't even president.More entertaining: the USCCB. LOL.

I watched. It wouldn't make a difference to my vote - I'm a democrat - but it was entertaining and made me feel a part of the process. Saw this today ar ThinkProgress ... At Last Nights Debate: Romney Told 27 Myths In 38 Minutes

It wont make a difference in my vote Im a ..... And I thought we were all supposed to be Catholic first....

I watched. So much for platitudes about civility. I normally like Biden but I found him very rude and disrespectful. Ryan was very restrained and was respectful to the old man (if he was a younger man he deserved a smack across the mouth for his behaviour). But deference to elders who have served a long time is a virtue and Ryan demonstrated that and that is a sign of someone with good manners.For his part, Biden needs to act the part of an elder statesman. Respect should not just be granted because he has longevity, it needs to be earned.As for the issues, on some of them Ryan is correct. Entitlements need to be taken on if we want to save them for future generations. But I think it needs to be done by stealth and quietly. In Canada, the retirement age has already been raised from 65 to 67 (this means eligibility for CPP the equivalent of Social Security) is delayed two years.On others team Obama is correct.To the chagrin of many friends, I quietly supported the Conservatives last election (but not in my riding as a friend is NDP) but in the main I thought the outcome of the election was right. If I had to vote in the US, I would vote Romney/Ryan for strictly pragmatic, economic reasons. Let them take the hit for doing what needs to be done. Somebody has to be unpopular and make hard decisions for the long term good.

I thought we were all supposed to be Catholic first.Well, I've been a democrat longer than I've been a Christian, but yes, if by some miracle the republican candidate was actually more ethical than the democrat, I'd vite for him.

Joe Biden's feisty performance made me think of the stories elderly relatives used to tell about political debates of the past. It seems Americans used to look forward to these things -- indeed travel far and wide to hear candidates spar over issues the powers-that-be at a USA Today think way too complicated for public consumption. People with less than 8th grade educations traveled, some on foot, from all over the Midwest to hear and bicker among themselves over the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Now maybe a handful of pundits on TV know enough to fact check what was said after the fact, and people make up their minds based on which candidate seemed or didn't seem "presidential." We call this progress...?

It was a great debate, but in my mind Joe Biden had the edge. The complexity of the issues this time around is mind boggling. It's not an easy choice because the problems are not easy. Congress is on trial here, and if either candidate gets in, will anything get done? We need a 3rd candidate that can cut through all the BS and get to the heart of congress--in short a miracle worker. Unless God himself is running, I think we are going to fall short. But I guess those are the weaknesses of our world.

"But I think it needs to be done by stealth and quietly. In Canada, the retirement age has already been raised from 65 to 67 (this means eligibility for CPP the equivalent of Social Security) is delayed two years."Here,too; I won't get social security until I'm 67.

Interesting segment on NPR this morning about the Lee Atwater's "contribution" to political discourse in presidential debates. The comparison Joe McFaul made to pro wrestling was used in an interview with documentarian Stephan Forbes who recently released "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." Clips from the doc here:

people make up their minds based on which candidate seemed or didn't seem presidential. We call this progress...?

That is the way politics is. Machiavelli talked about the importance of the prince maintaining a virtuous and temperate image for the people, but that this must be completely different then who they really are as they govern.And Sun Tzu says that a leader must be serene and inscrutable. Sounds a lot to me like Obama.Biden tried to bait Ryan but ended up looking bad but it is irrelevant.Romney's job is to irritate Obama without looking like Biden. Obama's job is to stay cool.

PSBut the fact that team Obama, through Biden, had to use the tactic of irritating the opponent means that they feel they are down. They are not confident in their lead and momentum. If I were them, I would have just stayed calm.

Mention of Machiavelli @12:20 raises the contrast between public demeanor and governance. Are they so easily separated especially in a media saturated political system? Biden didn't seem all that different at the debate with Ryan than Bob Woodward's report of him during the "private" debate with SofDef Gates and SofS Clinton about the Afghan surge. He has views and he doesn't hesitate to voice them in private as in public. Biden appears to be a politician who knows how to lose (as he did with the Afghan decision) and move on to the next battle. Does he give a hoot about his teeth, his smiling, his interrupting; I doubt it. Some people are born, or learn to be, agonistic. I suspect he's one of them. On that score, Ryan is not and never learned in spite of his outlandish views; his personality does not match his proposals.

This notion that candidates should stay cool is nonsense. Our early elections produced mind-boggling diatribes, and the men elected were top-quality (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, the Adams, Jackson. . . ) (I wonder if there is a correlation between negativity and competence of the winners.)Negative talk is necessary and not necessarily rude, though it's unpleasant. The only way to understand what is bad about a candidate is to make it clear. We need to know their drawbacks. Spin won't do.

Well, now that the R's have won a debate, and the D's have also, I can ask the question that came to me after the first debate: Why is "winning" a debate important in deciding who should lead the nation? I agree with those above who think that elucidating and being held accountable for one's policy positions is important, (and seemed to happen much more in the VP debate than the 1st Prez debate,) so--why isn't that the thing we look for? I really don't care if our president/VP can master the art of the debate smackdown--much as I enjoy them when my candidate is doing the smacking down--but substance should count more than style, istm.I'd also LOVE to see a team of on-the-spot fact-checkers sending reports to the moderator. "I'm sorry, Mr. ____, but our fact-checkers say your last statement is, well, patently false." Each candidate is responsible for keeping his opponent honest on his policy positions, which is a different matter. Outright prevarication can be called by a neutral party, I think.

"Biden tried to bait Ryan but ended up looking bad but it is irrelevant."My take is a bit different. Biden was ripping into Romney primarily, and Ryan secondarily.

To whomever thinks that Bidden showed Ryan no respect, bringing up car crashes for no reason other than to wound a man who lost his family to one, is disrespect.

Sun Tzu provides a package. The parts work together. Rule 1 is to know your enemy. At times, understanding your enemy may dictate a torrent of flaming rage (rationally planned and executed), not serenity, as the preferred tactic to induce in him the desired response. At other times, the nature of the enemy may be best exploited by guffaws aimed directly at his best efforts (see Biden). The primary objective is to prevail, not to look calm and serene.

Michael Cowtan;You seem to be implying that Ryan's telling the story of Romney visiting and offering consolation to a grieving family who lost several children in a car crash was a deliberate show of disrespect to Biden. I think it was more thoughtless. The Romney-Ryan ticket are desperate to show the human side of Romney.

I think it was deliberate, with the amount of preparation that goes into these things, there is no way that Ryan could not have known. It was supposed to inflame Bidden, and it did not work. How low can they go?

Agree. Deliberate.

Lisa --Your fact-checking idea is a great one. Maybe the debates could be scheduled for two hours, and the fact-checkers' questions could be asked the last 20 minutes. It would cut down on lying and exaggerating enormously both before and during the debates. Of course, they'd lie and exaggerate just as much afterwards, I guess. If a candidate can't weather the stress of a two hour debate, he/she isn't fit for high office.

I like Lisa's fact-checking scheme very much as an example of what I was hoping for earlier: "how to serve best the intended public good starting with a clear view of the communications involved in the 21st century" (10/12 3:11pm). One minor challenge is how to make certain it is absolutely, authoritatively correct in near-real time without benefit of updates, later clarifications, etc. Otherwise, it adds to the post-debate hullabaloo like that going on now for Ryan-Biden and Obama-Romney instead of reducing it.

Who's this Bidden character?

If the Fullam Fact Checker (FFC) evolved to become smart enough, we could do away with those irksome debaters. Just the moderator with the questions and FFC with optimum correct answers.

Jean Raber,Many thanks for the link to the Lee Atwater documentary. I always thought he was creepy, and IMHO he was a major factor in the nasty frat boy turn, the "gotcha" syndrome that has infected American political life.

Lauretta, I was able to watch the whole thing yesterday afternoon on for free. You can browse on over there and search for it if you're interested. I liked the fact that the story was told largely by a good balance of Atwater's friends and frenemies. The man may have been creepy, but he was apparently quite a good schmoozer.

Jean, if it rains tomorrow I might just try to watch it. I noted that Ed Rollins, who is no fool, thought well of Atwater even while acknowledging some of his more brazen behavior.

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