I didn’t watch the debate last night. And I've done my best to avoid watching any coverage of it either, at least before writing this. All I know right now is the Huffington Post says reporters and political operatives are largely calling it for Romney. And I can guess what that means—Romney managed to get through it without short circuiting.
For someone who has been prone to making statements that are distasteful to many Americans, the bar for Romney was set fairly low, while even Obama's staunchest critics concede that he is a very gifted orator. So as long as he didn’t have any of those awkward or uncomfortable moments, say anything too idiotic, or appear on stage with an orange spray tan, it would be seen as a “win.”
That doesn't mean Obama was the loser here though.
Of course it’s not that hard to avoid saying things that are idiotic when you don’t really have anything to say, and that was pretty much Romney’s strategy. Before the debate, it was reported that Romney was practicing his “zingers,” or quick one line jabs that were intended to grossly oversimplify complex issues, if not mislead audience members that haven’t taken the time to really try and understand them. The talk of zingers clearly demonstrated that Romney was more interested in putting on a show than having a substantive debate, and with good reason: his plans to make changes to the healthcare law, cut government spending, reduce the deficit, etc. have thus far been woefully lacking in specifics. Debating him would be much like debating an empty chair, and that’s a debate that simply cannot be won, as Clint Eastwood managed to prove, no matter how one tries to deconstruct the dog whistles and zingers.
Pundits on both sides are no doubt playing up the positives for their preferred candidate, and pointing out the negatives of the other, but no matter who you think “won” the debate, the loser was clear before the debate even started.
Much like the Republican primary, where a number of well-qualified candidates, such as former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, and former Louisiana Governor and 4-term Congressman Buddy Roemer, who made important policy distinctions between themselves and the other candidates, but were left out of the debates in favor of a guy that owns a pizza chain and someone whose Google search results alone should disqualify him from running for President, this debate left out important candidates as well.
Gary Johnson is now running on the Libertarian ticket, and Jill Stein is the candidate for the Green Party. Regardless of how small their chances might be, they are on the ballot in enough states that they could win enough Electoral College votes, and have been put at an unfair disadvantage by not being included. Perhaps more importantly though, their presence would have brought a broader range of topics and ideas to the table, and forced both major party candidates to better defend their positions.
So it wasn’t Obama who lost last night, nor was it Romney—it was the American People.
From 1976 through 1984, the League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates, setting a precedent that debates should be an integral part of the election process. In 1988 however, their board of trustees unanimously released the following statement:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates…because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.Since then, former heads of the major parties have been in charge of the Presidential Debate Commission. Having everything from the format of the debates to the criteria for being able to participate controlled by the two major parties is not only fundamentally unfair to any other candidates, it also does a disservice to the American people, who deserve an honest debate free of partisan influence, where the best ideas can carry the day.
I can pretty much guarantee this was not a topic of discussion last night. Not at the debate, nor on any major media outlets. And another thing that almost certainly was not discussed is what I would consider to be the most important domestic policy issue there is—more important than job creation, or deficit reduction, or healthcare, or education, or immigration, or energy policy, because it cuts to the heart of the dysfunction in our government—and that, of course, is our campaign finance system. Because as long as our elected officials are dependent on a small group of special moneyed interests to fund their campaigns, we will not truly have a democratic government of, by or for the people.
So rather than discussing who won or who lost, let's discuss what we can do to begin having real conversations where all sides are represented instead of perpetuating the most expensive reality TV series in history.