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Framers, pivots and defensemen: Our formulaic political debates

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Sure as autumn leaves turn color and fall is the inevitable political debate season now upon us. If you are old enough to remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates, you will recall the time when there was real substance to debates; they have evolved into made-for-television spectacles that are neither good television nor very informative. 

North Carolina has had two U.S. Senate debates between Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham and a virtual skirmish between Gov. Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Over the next three weeks we will see many contests all the way down the ballot.

Long before the Klieg lights are lit will come lengthy discussions about formats, such as how long a candidate has to respond to a question, how much time to rebut opponents and which topics will or won’t be included. Many campaigns hire consultants to coach their candidate. The mission is to help the candidate win or, at the least, not lose the debate. In fact, most focus more on having the candidate play defense and avoid statements that will become cannon fodder on TV ads or social media. 

Coaches also advise candidates on everything from what color suit or dress to wear, the correct makeup (for women and men) along with the right posture, facial expressions, gestures and voice control to employ. Coaches help carefully craft focus group-tested talking points that are rehearsed and rehearsed for hours, to the point the candidates can almost repeat them in their sleep. 

Movies can help us understand today’s political debate landscape. In one of my all-time favorite movies, “The American President,” Michael Douglas plays a president being attacked by his opponent, a guy named Bob Rumson. 

Listen to Douglas’ wisdom: “And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.” 

This process is called framing your opponent, putting him or her in the least favorable light, accompanied by threats of the terrible things that will happen if the framer loses the election. Sound familiar? 

Debate prep also teaches the art of pivoting, shifting the discussion away from a question the candidate doesn’t want to answer to a talking point more favorable. The pivot and rehearsed talking points help ensure the candidate won’t make big mistakes he or she will later regret. 

Voters seldom gain any valuable give and take from candidates — only accusations, scare tactics and vague information. Debates are not structured to generate honest civil discussion. Usually they are just unpleasant and boring. Declining television ratings reflect that voters avoid watching debates because they know what to expect. Instead, we revert to identity politics — whatever tribe (party), sex, race or geographic group with which we most identify is the one for which we’ll vote.  

If you are thinking that political debates are largely a waste of time, you have correctly gotten my drift. The good news is that debate season is a sure sign that it won’t be long before the nauseous television ads will end, we can finally vote and campaign madness will be over for another election cycle. The bad news is that the ugliness, partisan incivility and divisiveness will continue after the winners are named. 

Tom Campbell is a former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion that airs on the UNC-TV main channel at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays and the UNC North Carolina Channel at 10 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. Sundays. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.