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President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Oct. 3, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk at the end of the first presidential debate in Denver, Oct. 3, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

ELIZABETH RENZETTI

Forget rhetorical sparring: Obama mumbled and Romney twitched Add to ...

What if, for the next vice-presidential and presidential debates, the crowd files in and begins to chant, “Two men enter; one man leaves.” Jim Lehrer, should he recover from the pasting he took over his moderating capabilities at this week’s debate, could even pinch another line from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: “Right now, I’ve got two men, two men with a gut full of fear.” Although he might want to change it to “wingtips filled with mild anxiety.”

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Then the candidates could come in wearing harnesses and mohawks and beat each other with chains until one screamed, “I cede executive power!” This would at least demolish the notion that the debates are about anything other than stage presence, physical tics and poorly disguised metaphors for kicking the other guy’s butt.

You only had to look at the headlines in the partisan press the next day: “Obama beatdown,” “Romney stomps Obama.” Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, told Politico that “Romney spanked Obama stylistically, substantively, publicly and consistently.” I believe Mr. Steele may be writing a book called Fifty Shades of Beltway.

There was very little discussion the day after the debate about any substantive issues: whether Barack Obama had exaggerated his deficit-cutting abilities, or Mitt Romney stretched the truth about the increase in a family’s health-care costs. Instead, we heard that Mr. Obama looked tired and listless, that he mumbled like a 12-year-old asked about his day at school. Mr. Romney’s presidential attributes seem to be his high levels of energy – which suggests that, if any of us drank enough Red Bull, we, too, could be handed the nuclear football.

It’s true that Mr. Obama looked like a math teacher trying to drum trigonometry into the heads of a football team. His hand gestures, usually almost Bollywood in their verve and variety, abandoned him. At the same time, the formerly charisma-free Mr. Romney seemed galvanized into life, as if someone had attached electrodes to his limbs (the nickname Frankenweenie springs to mind, but it’s already been taken).

Would we have had a different result if the debate had been on radio, which historians point out was a boon to Richard Nixon, pasty and moist as a mushroom, over a tanned and healthy John Kennedy? Except that JFK wasn’t healthy; his skin colour came from Addison’s disease and his full face from steroids, interesting facts pointed out in Jim Lehrer’s book Tension City, a history of his involvement with presidential and vice-presidential debates (he’s moderated a dozen). Mr. Lehrer interviewed the nominees later, and it’s amazing how important the physical element is to the debate, how often they see themselves as besuited Maximuses preparing for conquest, and how often their subconscious tics let them down. After an audio failure before the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the candidates stood on stage for 27 minutes without speaking or looking at each other, afraid that the first one to sit down would show weakness.

Then there was the time that Al Gore strode over to George W. Bush in the 2000 debate, as if he were going to ask him for a rumble, or maybe a date. Dick Cheney insisted on sitting down for his vice-presidential debates, perhaps so no one could see his tail.

Voters remembered what the candidates did during the debates, and not necessarily what they said. Mr. Bush’s father is remembered for looking at his watch, Mr. Gore for his exaggerated sighs, and Mr. Bush for his facial expressions when debating John Kerry in 2004. Mr. Bush, in fact, thought he had lost that debate because he looked like a man who’d bit into a rancid enchilada. “The interesting thing about presidential debates is that I don’t think you ever win,” he told Mr. Lehrer, “but you darn sure can lose them.”

In 2010, the leaders of Britain’s three major political parties held the first televised prime ministerial debate in the country’s history, perhaps hoping that a little American glamour would rub off on them. The physical element was nearly eliminated; the debate was circumscribed by 76 rules, including no interrupting and no cutaway shots of the candidates. The height of savagery came when the leaders began addressing each other by their first names. Otherwise, it contained all the hostility of three vicars deciding whether to have cucumber or salmon sandwiches at the village fete.

Did this rectitude, this insistence on substance over style, make for better-informed voters? Well, David Cameron’s the Prime Minister, so I’m not sure the evidence is there. As for the U.S. race, I’ll withhold judgment until I see next week’s vice-presidential debate: Perhaps Paul Ryan and Joe Biden will engage in rhetorical sparring that would make Lincoln weep. But if they come out in Mexican wrestling masks, I’m turning off the TV.

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