Marcus: Debates showed candidates' ability to dodge key issues

By Ruth Marcus, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 
photoRuth Marcus

What we learned — and didn't — from the debates:

Etch A Sketch, the ultimate retro toy, is alive and well. The debates have seen the emergence of New Romney -- self-proclaimed champion of the auto industry, protector of women's access to contraception, believer in pathways to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. It takes some brass to try to pull this off in the age of YouTube.

"Attacking me is not an agenda." Point, Mitt Romney.

It is possible in 2012, with an incumbent president who has taken the plunge to abolish "don't ask, don't tell," declined to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, and come out in favor of same-sex marriage, to have the issue of gay rights not come up a single time during the debates.

It is not possible in 2012, even after a spree of mass shootings, to have a sensible discussion about gun violence and gun control. Ask a question about limiting the availability of assault weapons and get blather from both candidates and proclamations of fealty to the Second Amendment. Barack Obama: "What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally." Romney: "We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids."

Letting candidates roam the stage like unleashed dogs during the town hall debate is distracting and unnecessary. Give them chairs and make them sit.

Likewise, voters are ill-served by adolescent did not/did too interchanges. Maybe the candidates should come with smartphones so they can Google up the instant answer to whether oil production on government land is up or down (depends on the time frame you measure), or whether Obama wanted a status-of-forces agreement in Iraq (he did.)

Note to candidates: whining to the moderator about whether it's your turn or you've gotten enough time makes you look small.

How important is the women's vote? Here's a clue: Obama mentioned Planned Parenthood -- and Romney's plans to eliminate federal funding for same -- five times during the town hall debate.

On a related matter (the future of Roe v. Wade, among other things), the Supreme Court -- hello? Appointing justices is one of a president's most enduring actions, but it didn't merit a single question. The only substantive mention of the court came during the vice presidential debate, when Joe Biden raised the issue in response to a question about abortion rights.

Speaking of the vice presidential debate, how is it that Al Gore is pilloried for audibly sighing while Biden escapes relatively unscathed for far worse behavior? If this were a student council debate -- interrupting, laughing, making faces while the other candidate is speaking -- the principal would have intervened.

Not since Nancy Reagan has anyone so mastered the art of looking on while someone else is speaking. Romney has perfected the Debate Gaze, the indulgent smile that conveys disapproval without crossing the line into sneering.

These guys don't like each other. Romney does a better job of hiding it, barely. To me, Obama's condescension too often crossed the line into offensive, as when, in Monday's debate, he elaborated on his horses and bayonets point about the changing military. "We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them," Obama scoffed. "We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines." Romney had his peevish outbursts, too. "You'll get your chance in a moment," he lectured Obama at the second debate. "I'm still speaking." This is a dangerous way to speak to an incumbent president.

It's still the economy, stupid. Just listen to the candidates' closing statements Monday night. A foreign policy debate ended on an unsurprising note: with the candidates making competing pitches not only about keeping America safe but about creating jobs and taming the debt.