Unmoved, Unconvinced, Unnecessary

By October 8, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Oct. 8 (UPI) — I watched the second presidential debate in the residence of a Western ambassador yesterday. I had set up phone calls afterward with a selection of diplomats, journalists, business folks and ministers from different countries. They were left mostly unmoved and unconvinced by either candidate. Even the debates themselves were critiqued as unnecessary.

“What is it with your presidential candidates? Not only were they off the mark — and, by the way, the moderator Tom Brokaw was horrible — they just don’t seem to understand Russia. It is rather pathetic that nearly 20 years after the fall of communism, the kind of rhetoric used last evening still evidently gets votes in the United States,” a leading diplomat said to me.

Just as anti-American rhetoric plays well in Russian elections, anti-Russian rhetoric plays well in U.S. elections. “Yes,” said a Canadian ambassador, “anti-Russian rhetoric plays well — and it always will.”

“It is an unfortunate legacy of the Cold War. Frankly, I see it as completely unhelpful, and I am, after all, someone who served in the Cold War and was hardly pro-Soviet,” a former leading U.S. diplomat said to me.

It is not that Europeans are enamored with Russia’s behavior; they simply don’t see value in constantly putting a finger in an open wound — and certainly not publicly. “The U.S. shows China respect; why does it condescend to Russia?” a Romanian minister asked me. “China is far more dangerous than Russia. Europeans think it is unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We see subtleties that U.S. politicians often do not.”

“Medvedev is not Putin,” a Central European state secretary said to me. “It seems rather unwise to attack the Russian president by throwing him in with Putin, before he has even been met with. Do Americans really hearken back to the days of Cold War rhetoric? I mean, honestly — ‘the evil empire’? What was Tom Brokaw thinking? And Obama’s answer was as naive as McCain’s was alarming.”

A German journalist asked of the “town hall” format, “Wie kann mann so was ernst nehmen?” — how can one take such a thing seriously? “Marc, the questions seemed canned, beyond the depth of those asking. One fellow asked about healthcare. He could barely get the question out of his mouth. And — I have respected Tom Brokaw’s work in the past — er war einfach schlecht — he was simply awful. I have lived and worked in the U.S. The country is big. Regions and states are very different. But is this really an appropriate format for U.S. presidential elections? I mean, McCain or Obama will become the leaders of the free world. It seemed so very high school.”

The BBC criticized the format and said John McCain seemed uncomfortable. I too found McCain’s constant use of the mantra “my friend” or “my friends” a bit much. I like the senator from Arizona, but on this evening he seemed to be trying too hard. An English journalist friend said to me, “I know and like John McCain. We have interacted at the Munich Security Conference. His campaign is not doing him justice. I do not understand why they are managing him so badly.”

A leading French chief executive officer said he found it “disconcerting” how badly both Obama and McCain were briefed on the banking collapse and bailout. “Here are two men; one will be leading the largest economy in the world. I shudder to think what policies will come out of either administration. If either of them steers economic policy as badly as they expressed it, the United States is in for an even greater disaster than now.”

“I switched back and forth between CNN, BBC and the Polish Channel,” a ranking Polish diplomat said to me. “The supposed experts on CNN aren’t offering unbiased analysis. It is badly disguised lobbying on behalf of one or the other candidate. And those squiggly lines at the bottom of the screen showing what men and women in a focus group think — honestly, that isn’t even subtle manipulation of those watching their TV.”

I was asked if I thought the presidential debates actually change votes. I think marginally. The debates can lift a candidate’s momentum and standing or cut the slide, much like it did with Sarah Palin’s performance. But I think it is really more “much ado about nothing.” Most people see through the sound bites and hoopla.

The debates have become mass-media and public-relations exercises. Substance is dumbed down to the minimum. The days when a meaningful dialogue or discussion between the candidates offered anything new are long gone. No adviser to a candidate will want to do anything but avoid risk. Hence the formats are designed to constrain and manage the candidates, not help them debate the issues.

It is time to rethink the value of these managed soundbites and contrived interactions.

They leave the world wondering even more about us and our presidential process.

Worse still, they are an insult to the intelligence of the U.S. electorate.

UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He is a vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.