My my, aren’t British elections boring. We only cottoned on to the value of this pre-election debate thing in the last election, where the three (three!) main parties stood behind lecterns and vaguely pontificated about something-or-rather for about 20 minutes until everyone decided that Nick Clegg (look it up) was the saviour of Britain. Look how that turned out.
The U.S., as ever, does it properly. Three rounds of no-holds-barred slugfest that digs to the root of each candidate’s position on everything from the future of medical care to America’s future role in the global politico-econosphere. All with the background of a bald eagle surfing on a shield festooned in the stars and stripes, with laurel leaves in one set of talons and four arrows in the other, munching on a banner that proudly displays the slogan “The Union and the Constitution Forever”. No ifs, no buts. Just Awesome.
It seemed as if everyone was waiting on tenterhooks to see who would mess up first. It didn’t take long. Obama’s performance in the first debate was execrable, as if he’d eaten a giant plate of lasagne, washed down with three bottles of Sierra Nevada and a triple helping of Nyquil. He seriously underestimated Romney’s forcefulness, cogency of argument and (whisper it) use of quantitative evidence. It was like watching the train wreck from the beginning of Super 8 in slow motion, for an hour and a half. It was genuinely impressive from the Republican, which is a difficult thing for a Guardian-reading Brit to say.
The second debate laid bare something equally surprising for someone from a political culture where since 1996 the main parties have essentially been arguing over semantically-crafted views of the political middle ground — not a huge amount of enmity, just a desire for market share of the middle classes.
Romney and Obama put on a show of impressive dislike, not just in terms of each others policies or opinion on the world’s economic outlook, but for each other as people. It was in turns entertaining and distasteful. If this is what the “Town Hall Style” removal of lecterns can do, imagine if they had put down the microphones. Fisticuffs, that’s what.
The debate reinforced a feeling that these events are so much more about the theatre of politics than the substance. Over and over it came down to point-scoring, to glib soundbites on both sides that would play well on scrolling news updates. That is not to say this is particular to American politics, far from it, but it did make you wish that the clear distinction in political outlook could be argued firmly and coherently, allowing the electorate to make an informed decision as to which one represents the America they want to see over the next four years.
As if to reinforce this point, it was this lack of theatrics, of verbally slapping each other around, that was so starkly missing from the final debate, and made it dull as a result. It’s painful to say it. Both candidates had got the message from the previous round, and talked around foreign policy in a relatively controlled manner for the 90 minutes, until we all heaved a sigh of relief and went home.
No surprises, Obama edged it, but not perhaps to the extent he should have done for someone who has access to all the facts, whereas his opponent has only a relative inkling of the intricacies of the external political reality.
So here we are, with the election poised almost at an equilibrium, and it is shaping up for a second Tuesday in November that the 24-hour news networks could only have dreamed about. Or helped manufacture. In any case, the show rolls on. Hands will be shaken, points will be scored, positions will be finessed, and on a cold November morning all of you must go out and support the side you believe will result in a better America.
That’s the only thing that could make these showdowns worth it.