In presidential debates, toughness is more valued than truth

If only Bill Clinton could be Obama's debate surrogate
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

Winning a presidential debate is a lot like winning a belching contest. Sure, it takes a peculiar sort of skill, but is it anything to be proud of?

Mitt Romney was universally acknowledged as the “winner” of his first debate with President Obama, but what did he actually do to claim victory? He reversed positions he had taken through the entire campaign. He failed to give any serious detail about how he planned to make up for the huge revenue losses inherent in his big plan to cut taxes. He attacked his opponent with a stream of false or exaggerated characterizations of administration policies. And he bullied moderator Jim Lehrer with relish akin to the enthusiasm he must have displayed when he gave that gay kid an involuntary haircut back in his prep school days.

Why does any of that make him a winner?

And what qualified Obama as a loser? The president told supporters this week he had been too polite in the debate, but it was more than that. Having been reminded over and over again not to come across as an arrogant, angry black man, he bit his tongue and let Romney get away with one unanswered untruth after another. Personally, I would like to have seen an angry black man flipping Romney’s trash talk right back at him. Instead, Obama looked like a sleepy community college teacher trying to get through the last class of the day.


Maybe the president of the United States considered it demeaning to be expected to perform like a contestant on “Family Feud” while tolerating Romney’s sanctimonious, smarmy gaze. Maybe he felt he had more useful things to do -- like an anniversary dinner with Michelle.

It is too bad for Obama that he cannot just find someone to take his place in the debates; someone who is quicker with a retort, handier with facts and tougher in a fight. Someone like the guy who gave the best speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: Bill Clinton.

Not only would a Clinton-Romney debate be more entertaining, the ex-president could do the one thing the current president has been coached not to do. It was often said that, because of his personality, background and appeal to African Americans, Clinton was our first “black president.” Unlike Obama, he could play the role of angry black man and get away with it.

After all, it is clearly not truthfulness or consistency that are hallmarks of a debate winner. There seems to be one primary trait that is rewarded in these encounters: being a badass.