Unserious debates for serious times: how the empty, vacuous Obama-Romney faceoffs failed voters

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

In the 2016 debates, triggered by anti-plagiarism software, an on-screen headline should immediately notify voters whenever a candidate repeats 10 or more words in the precise order that he has used them before in public. This technological adjustment would be designed to embarrass candidates who lapse into stump speeches (“I know what it takes to create 12 million new jobs”). And it would move us closer to the dream of presidential debates as an exchange of ideas, not sound bites.

Here’s another proposal.

The saddest part of Monday night’s debate was moderator Bob Schieffer’s repeated plaintive pleas to “get back to foreign policy,” so if two future candidates cannot bother to devote a full 90 minutes to global issues, they would be obligated to jointly sign a binding contract declaring “The 21st century will never be an American century.” No more talk about American exceptionalism and “this nation is the hope of the earth” if you neglect to mention India in a presidential debate. If the American voters zone out at the mention of foreign policy, then it’s time to let the United Nations or the Miss Universe contestants safeguard the Strait of Hormuz.

It’s a depressing commentary when the most indelible memories from Debates 2012 revolve around frustrations with the format. You could fill an entire State of the Union address with all the topics that never received any serious discussion from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

You could begin with global warming, where the consequences are apt to be felt long before the budget deficits supposedly turn America into Greece. That segues into the question of how America should respond if the euro collapses over economic tensions between northern and southern Europe. And since the Federal Reserve would lead any economic rescue mission, how about discussing what standards the next president would use in picking a successor to Ben Bernanke when his term expires in early 2014?

If voters have tentative answers to questions like these, then clearly they possess sources of information far beyond the debates. The 360 minutes of the four prime-time faceoffs did not so much circle the globe as demonstrate the vacuity of circle-your-wagons politics.

That said, like a crystal spring bubbling up to quench the thirst of a wagon train on the parched journey west, there were a few moments of unexpected policy substance during Monday night’s debate.

It was significant, for example, that Romney endorsed Obama’s dramatic expansion of drone attacks: “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology.” With Romney joining Obama in the Drones Club (hat tip: P.G. Wodehouse), targeted assassinations from the air are now the bipartisan policy of the United States.

They may indeed be an effective tactic against the remnants of al-Qaida, but at what point will the terrorist threat be reduced enough to return to more traditional tactics? Nearly 40 years ago, the Church Committee revealed decades of CIA assassination plots, especially eight different efforts to kill Fidel Castro. The national consensus then was that the risk of retaliation (not to mention moral qualms) did not justify state-sanctioned murder. Romney and Obama have never attempted to explain what has changed since the height of the Cold War.

[Political junkie? Sign up for the Yahoo! News Daily Ticket newsletter today]

In another revealing moment during the third and final presidential debate, Obama declared that the congressionally mandated automatic $50 billion in Pentagon budget cuts (the sequester) “will not happen.” In the context of the debate, it was impossible to know precisely what the president meant by this flat declaration.

Was Obama saying that there would be a deal with congressional Republicans before the end-of-the-year deadline to prevent the meat-cleaver budget cuts from taking effect ($50 billion is also slated to be sliced from domestic spending)? Or was Obama, never a master negotiator, unilaterally giving away the Democratic bargaining position by saying that domestic cuts were still on the table but the Pentagon was off-limits?

The biggest budget issue of 2013—and perhaps the next four years—revolves around the expiration of all the Bush cuts and the temporary payroll tax reductions on New Year’s Eve. That, combined with the sequester, means that Obama (either victorious or as a lame-duck president) will be devoting much of the rest of 2012 to negotiations with Congress.

Part of the mystery that Obama has never addressed in the campaign is, what is his fall-back position and will he use this deadline to propose a long-term Grand Bargain on the deficit with Republicans? Romney has been equally opaque about whether, if elected, he would accede to a bipartisan end-of-the-year budget deal or repudiate it as soon as he moved into the Oval Office.

Instead, Monday night’s debate featured banalities such as Romney piously proclaiming, “I love teachers.” And for his part, Obama was particularly heavy-handed when he felt obligated to remind voters, “You know, after we killed bin Laden, I was at ground zero.”

These are serious times for America, as the war-weary nation confronts a sputtering economy and a decade-long deficit of hope. The gravity of the problems should have prompted a policy-driven presidential campaign by both sides. Instead, we have vague outlines and glib solutions. And that is—as Mitt Romney might put it—the height of silliness.