Viewer Preparation For That First Presidential Debate

President Obama and Mitt Romney are busy preparing for their first debate, set for October 3 at the University of Denver.  With the first debate less than a week away, that means the rest of us need to prepare, too.

For all of their build-up, the debates usually are a yawner.  We’d like to see something shocking, spontaneous, hilarious, or intensely revealing, but it never happens.  Wouldn’t you love to see a candidate take a chance and do something to shake things up, like Mitt Romney coming onstage wearing a top hat and monocle in a humorous bid to deflate the “out-of-touch rich guy” mantra?  Of course, no candidate wants to take the risk that a bold effort or answer might backfire, so they play everything close to the vest.

As a result, for every memorable debate moment — like President Reagan, in response to a question about age, promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” against him, Mike Dukakis’ robotic answer to a question about his wife getting raped, or Al Gore invading George Bush’s personal space — there are countless hours of tedious blather.  Adding “new” formats, like a “town hall” where “ordinary citizens” ask screwball questions, hasn’t changed the dullness quotient.  Does anyone remember anything about the Dole-Clinton debates in 1996, the Bush-Kerry debates in 2004, or the Obama-McCain debates in 2008?

What do viewers need to do to get themselves ready for the debates?  First, go to the grocery store and buy the biggest grain of salt you can find.  You’re going to need it for the silly pre-debate expectations management game and the post-debate spin and posturing.  Second, and speaking of the post-debate spin cycle, every viewer should do some preparatory eye muscle exercises, so they don’t harm themselves by uncontrolled eye-rolling in response to an outlandish claim that one candidate or the other committed the most awful gaffe in the history of politics.  Third, laying in heavy supplies of Five-Hour Energy, coffee, and Jolt Cola is a good idea, to help you make it through the droning “serious” question about education policy by a camera-hungry member of the panel of reporters and the equally droning answers of the candidates.

And during the first debate I predict every viewer will check their TV for mechanical failure at least once, because moderator Jim Lehrer’s sober visage will not have changed.  No need for that:  Lehrer, who pursuant to federal law has moderated every president debate since the Hoover administration, isn’t actually alive, but instead was manufactured decades ago when animatronics hadn’t progressed to the point of allowing nuanced facial expressions.

Time to get ready, America!

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Who Should Be Romney’s Running Mate? Who Cares?

There’s a lot of chatter about who Mitt Romney might pick as his running mate.  Why not?  It’s a boring time in the political cycle, the economic data and the news from Europe are relentlessly, soul-crushingly bad, and today the President laid an egg with a turgid speech about the economy that offered no new ideas or magic bullets.  So why not spend a lot of time yakking about who might be Romney’s veep, rather than facing the painful truth about our current predicament?

It’s fun to speculate about such things.  Wouldn’t blunt, plain-spoken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie be a riot to watch in a vice presidential debate with Joe Biden?  And speaking of governors, how about Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal or South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, just to show that the GOP isn’t just a bunch of white guys with ’50s haircuts?  Or Senator Marco Rubio, who brings some dash and flash and can deliver a killer speech?  And for every interesting candidate, of course, there’s a dull, safe choice, like Ohio’s junior Senator, Rob Portman, who has lots of experience with budgets but not much pizzazz.

Only Romney and his advisors know for sure who they are considering, and what kinds of factors will enter into the mix.  For now, it’s worth mentioning that the selection of the vice president really doesn’t make much difference.  Consider Joe Biden.  He was a windbag and a gaffe-making machine as a long-serving Senator from Delaware, and he hasn’t changed as vice president.  Does it make any difference?  Does anybody really believe that Joe Biden has much influence on policy, or is entrusted with anything significant?  I sure hope he isn’t; I’m quite comfortable with his role as U.S. representative at high-level foreign funerals and inaugurations and one of the President’s chief errand boys and message-deliverers.

In my lifetime, most of the vice presidents have been either non-entities (Humphrey, Mondale, Ford) or embarrassments (Rockefeller, Biden), and sometimes both (Agnew, Quayle).  The country has somehow survived them all.  Even when the vice presidents seemed to be something more than the standard officeholder (George H.W. Bush, Gore) it’s not entirely clear whether they did much of substance in developing policy or advising the President.  The only veep who really seemed to have a significant role, at least for a time, was Dick Cheney — and I think his prominence made some people uncomfortable.

So let the speculation continue.  It can’t hurt, and it might distract us from the drumbeat of bad news.  Just don’t expect me to care much about who Romney picks, because it doesn’t really matter — even if Romney ends up winning.