The first presidential debate was most striking for Gov. Mitt Romney’s aggressiveness and President Barack Obama’s rhetorical reserve, but the town hall format in the second debate provides an extra challenge for the candidates, says Peter Kastor, PhD, professor of history and American culture studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
The two debates also reveal one of the greatest challenges to candidates as they try to appear presidential: balancing emotional display with appropriate reserve.
Kastor notes that there’s more to this than looking for smoke and mirrors. “The relationship between style and substance has often turned on a discussion of truthfulness (does a candidate use a particular style to cover the fact that he is lying in the debate). That’s certainly the way both parties have explained things, claiming that any increased popularity in the opposition is only the result of insidious lies.”
Kastor looks at it differently. “These debates are part of the process for convincing Americans that a particular candidate is ‘presidential.’ And, within current American political culture, that term relates directly to the relationship between style and substance.
“More specifically, presidents are supposed to be both distant and personable, restrained and emotional, aggressive and confrontational on one hand yet dignified and conciliatory on the other,” he said.
“The Obama of 2008 is very different from the Obama of 2012,” Kastor said. “His speeches and his performance in the first debate were less personally revealing and less emotionally evocative.”
Tonight's town hall debate format may give Obama – and Romney – a chance to appear “presidential” in a very different way.
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“The town hall format works very differently,” Kastor said. “Candidates must be emotionally demonstrative and personally revealing in a way they don’t display in one-on-one debates. That was certainly the lesson of the first time presidential candidates tried this debate on TV.”
Kastor notes that in the 1992 debate, Bill Clinton’s ability to connect with the audience at a personal level only magnified the perception that George H.W. Bush could not connect with average Americans. In a town-hall format, Kastor says, candidates must find a way to aggressively respond to each other without deploying the sort of attacks that are so common in one-on-one debates.
But whatever happens tonight, they’ll have one more debate with a return to the one-on-one format.
“The first and second debates may share more in common on subject (the first focused on domestic policy and the town hall debates usually do as well, while the third debate will focus on foreign policy), but the first and third debates share far more in common on form.”
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