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Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2004 / 14 Tishrei 5765

Roger Simon

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Defining moment? That's debatable | I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party, but the upcoming presidential debates may not be as big a deal as some in the media are making them out to be.

Some are convinced that they will be the pivotal moment in what has been a very long campaign. Many are convinced they will make or break John Kerry.

To which I say: Maybe. But maybe not.

Debates are usually not pivotal events. Debates are usually pretty good at providing a peek at the candidates and how they behave under pressure, but are pretty bad at producing clear winners and losers.

And winners and losers are definitely what the media care about. (Which is why they conduct focus groups, just so they can claim ordinary people have picked winners and losers even when there aren't any.)

Yet the same members of the media who are now saying how important these debates certainly will be also sat through dozens of primary debates, which didn't amount to hardly anything.

In fact, the media are usually disappointed by debates, because the only debates that we remember are those with zingers and gaffes and most debates don't have those.

Everybody remembers the second Michael Dukakis-George H.W. Bush debate in 1988 because of Dukakis' seemingly cold response to a question about the imaginary killer and rapist of his wife. But who remembers the first Dukakis-Bush debate that year? Hardly anybody. There were no zingers.

Further there is a certain silliness to debates that is hard to overlook. First, there is the absurdity of all the prep and all the rehearsals. Aren't Bush and Kerry supposed to know the issues already? So what are they rehearsing except their theatrical skills?

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"Most prep is total bull----," one former Democratic debate prepper told me. "You got it or you don't got it. You either come across as genuine or you don't come across as genuine." Maybe. But don't tell the candidates that. They are rehearsing like mad.

The biggest problem with over-emphasizing debates, however, is that debates are totally unreal. The defense of the current debate format, in which the candidates are peppered with questions and an instant response is demanded, is that it is designed to show us how the candidates perform under pressure. (Which is the same rationale the Miss America pageant uses to defend the swimsuit competition.)

In real life, however, the heat generated by a debate is nothing like the pressure of the Oval Office. In real life, rarely does a president have to come up with immediate answers to provocative questions without consulting anybody (except at press conferences, which are also pure theater).

During a debate, I have never heard a candidate pause and say, "I'd like to think about that for a few moments before I answer." Or, "I'd like to consult with my staff and some experts before I give you a reply."

If a candidate said either of those things, the media would tear him apart. But why? Both replies are reasonable and much closer to how a president actually operates.

Do we really want our presidents making dramatic, theatric, off-the-cuff decisions on important matters?

Haven't we had too much of that already?

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