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Opinion

September 29, 2012

Shribman: Debating the debates

(Continued)

Sides cites several studies to support his argument, plus a 1960 Gallup Poll showing that Nixon led by a single point beforehand and fell behind by 3 points afterward, which may be statistically insignificant. Vanocur now calls the debates “the odes of October,” adding in a telephone conversation, “They have become too much of an event, rather than a substantive turn in politics.”

But they are part of the process, and it is impossible to say in advance what might become an important campaign symbol in retrospect. Some debate episodes inevitably stick out, as both of the 2012 candidates know well.

Mitt Romney’s remark that the way his 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial rival, Shannon O’Brien, characterized his views on abortion was “unbecoming” led to a contretemps over whether he was insulting or patronizing to women. Sen. Barack Obama’s remark that his 2008 Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was “likable enough” led to a flurry of critiques that he was condescending, insulting or unfeeling.

Does any of that matter?

Wednesday’s debate will include six 15-minute segments, half of them on the economy. One will be on the role of government, and here the two candidates might provide some valuable insights into their philosophy. Earlier this month, The Associated Press and the National Constitution Center released a poll showing that only two in five Americans believe the government is assuring the well-being of all Americans.

That finding suggests a series of searching questions, examining whether the candidates believe the government is failing to address Americans’ needs (which might mean that it is incompetent, or needlessly bureaucratic, or the captive of special interests), or whether they believe the current conception of the government’s role is inappropriate to the times (which might mean Americans expect too much from Washington, or that an expansive view of government has dulled the public’s sense of responsibility and independence, or that the government’s role is about right for today’s circumstances).

One final thought before the opening bell: Whether presidential debates change the outcome is probably a lot less important than whether they inform the electorate. This is presidential politics, not a World Series game. In fact, this year the debates will be over before the Series is.

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North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)

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