It doesn’t matter who won the debate.
Last evening I returned to my alma mater, Centre College, to participate in the festivities for the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. While America watched the candidates spar on a range of topics from Libya to abortion, what they didn’t see is the hundreds of people gathered on the lawn outside of the debate hall to watch the simulcast.
Parents settled on blankets while their children raced the sidewalks, college students clustered on available hoodies and jackets, and elderly folks sitting in all manner and styles of lawn furniture — it might have been an evening of summer stock theatre, or at the drive-in. And in a way it was.
Any good actor will tell you that learning the lines is crucial to any performance: you have to have the lines down cold to then seem natural and at ease. You see this most obviously when candidates are caught unprepared, or off-guard by a glib comment — the fumbling, searching for words and process time. With rhetoric like “friend,” statistics and surveys, and intense scrutiny of past media engagement, both Biden and Ryan intensely rehearsed for their night in the national spotlight. And even their stage is meticulously set against any surprises: favorable lighting ensures neither candidate’s face is cast in shadow, tie decisions are checked against both suit and set design, and the candidates are kept in air conditioning set at 53 degrees to ensure neither sweats profusely (a trick learned after the first televised debate in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon — in which many watchers thought that the overly-warm Nixon was uncomfortable due to being bested by Kennedy, while radio listeners tended to think that Nixon came off better than Kennedy. Kennedy eventually won the race, but the debate became a crucial talking point).
At any rate, the point is that whether your election coverage comes from C-SPAN, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, PBS, or any online source, you are watching well-rehearsed technical and political stagecraft. I don’t point this out to cast aspersions on the debate process; any of my friends will tell you I’m a bit of a political nut, and I love watching them. Debates provide a crucial platform for presidential candidates and their running mates to articulate their platform, point out flaws in their opponent’s arguments, and reinforce their plan for this country’s immediate future.
Yet, what America didn’t see on the front lawn was the real narrative of the change we need for the next four years: local Obama supporters sitting alongside Romney enthusiasts, engaging in thoughtful discussions over hot-buttoned issues, trying to decide which running ticket should lead our nation. No name-calling, no attack ads, and nary a dubious statistic heard. An evening of good-natured politics, and moreover, educated civil engagement. Now, I’m not so naive as to think that a heated argument couldn’t have broken out — it’s always a possibility when people feel their fundamental beliefs are being challenged. But the true change that both candidates advocate for starts at home. In your apartment building, your neighborhood association, your local community. Can we fault Washington on a lack of bi-partisanship if the men and women we send there to represent us are reflecting the very behavior we promote in our homes? It was clear from last night that it doesn’t much matter who won the debate, or even who you vote for. What matters is that you make the decision to not be apathetic or uninformed; that you take advantage of civic duty that serves as the cornerstone of American society, and participate it the democratic process. The only wrong vote is not voting at all.