In their great debates, Americans see the real candidates

(REUTERS)

The 2012 U.S. presidential debates did what debates are supposed to do: They shook up the election campaign in the best kind of way, forcing voters to reconcile the image of the candidates’ negative campaigning with the more direct impression they had from watching the candidates themselves.

While this, too, is an artifice – the days when people imagined television as an X-ray of the soul are long gone – it was a welcome corrective. It’s far better for a vote to be determined by direct impression than through media hearsay or a rival’s hostile caricatures.

Along the way, American voters gained at least four key insights into their presidential contenders. First, both are honourable, decent, talented and smart men – fast on their feet, extraordinarily poised, able to master the difficult task of sounding intelligent yet intelligible, staying reasonably consistent, and covering a dizzying array of topics, in a fast-paced, high-pressure format where millions are scrutinizing you when you speak, when your rival speaks, and long after the debate, too. From a human perspective, the three debates are brutal, relentless, stomach-churning – and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama handled those challenges quite deftly.

We also learned where each goes when flustered or the pressure gets a little unmanageable. Mr. Romney goes to blusterville, speaking a little too quickly, letting his sentences lose their linearity and discipline, as one phrase circles into the next and words collide uncomfortably and randomly. Mr. Obama goes to peevishland, his voice sounds higher, his demeanour looks grimmer, his body language becomes tighter. At their worst, Mr. Romney risks looking too flummoxed or clueless, the chastened preppy seeking his footing in a newly hostile world; Mr. Obama risks looking too angry or arrogant, the Mr. Perfect Golden Boy unused to being corrected or confronted by others.

Substantively, the debates uncovered many similarities between the two that are only surprising to partisans who believe their respective party’s propaganda that the two have mutually exclusive visions for America. Especially in the final foreign policy debate: Americans discovered that both mistrust Iran, worry about the Syrian mess, are wary of China, support Israel, want to end the Afghan war, and hope to see the Arab Spring produce democracy. In the 1940s, Republicans and Democrats preached that partisanship should not go beyond the water’s edge. While neither candidate in 2012 was quite ready to launch a bipartisan foreign policy, each could have stolen many of the other’s lines, with Mr. Romney rhapsodizing about peace and Mr. Obama hanging tough.

Still, the drama in the debates came from the clashes, and they were substantive, not just stylistic. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney disagree about some crucial fundamentals. Mr. Obama believes government can help Americans, Mr. Romney believes it often burdens them. Mr. Obama says his stimulus package and other measures righted the ship of state and America’s economy, Mr. Romney fears the growing Obama deficit will sink Americans. Mr. Obama celebrates his health-care legislation, Mr. Romney doubts it. Mr. Romney celebrates his tax-cut promises and job-creation plans, Mr. Obama doubts them. These differences will make for different presidencies, even as we know that Mr. Obama also believes in free enterprise, and Mr. Romney also acknowledges government’s important role in American life.

Ultimately, serious issues remain unaddressed. It’s unfortunate that this campaign has lacked substantive discussion about the growing polarization in politics and the corrupting role of money in the campaign. Each side caricatures the other as guilty without taking any responsibility for also perpetuating the problem. And while abortion gets lots of play, even though it’s a constitutional issue for the Supreme Court, both candidates and the debate moderators ignored other issues that the President could try addressing, such as the epidemics of family breakdown, of violence in the schools, of collapsing social structures, of the perpetually alienated, of the temporarily demoralized. The U.S. faces serious domestic challenges that go beyond taxes and health care; neglect will only exacerbate them.

In every presidential campaign, Americans assess the present and invest in the future, using history as their guide. In this campaign, Mr. Obama has been running against himself, haunted by the ghost – and hopes – of 2008 – that the complicated realities of his presidency have not been able to match. Mr. Romney has been haunted by the ghost – and successes – of Ronald Reagan, unable, so far, to measure up to the governor who unseated a Democratic incumbent during times of economic difficulty by displaying great charm and moderating his once harsh conservative image.

The debates gave both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama opportunities to shine. And once a winner emerges, the great American myth-making machine will kick in, and magnify some moments from the victor’s debates into the stuff of legend.