In a few days, Obama and Romney will spar again, and the format will be the same as their two previous matches. To lend them some intellectual and academic cachet, they are called debates, but they are nothing at all like debates and are really just campaign events. And they would be of little significance if it were not for the fact that this race seems to be very, very close.
The general topic of Monday's encounter will be foreign policy, and it will range far and wide: from Mexico to Russia to North Africa, Southwest Asia and the Pacific. Romney will say that the world is in bigger mess, that we're less safe, because Obama is detached, feckless and interested only in a dangerous American withdrawal from the global stage. Obama will say that the world is a complicated place, that his administration has been successful in navigating difficult shoals when a more headstrong approach would have been disastrous. And they will try to count coup with two names: Obama will invoke his decision to dispatch Osama bin Laden, and Romney will pin the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on the administration's ineptitude.
The two of them will sound a bit like bickering schoolchildren, and you should be excused if you emerge from the experience of listening to them with the opinion that neither really has a foreign policy worthy of the name. The one distinction that may surface is that Romney would like to spend about 30% more than Obama on defense, but that difference evaporates when you consider that the Congress, not the White House, decides how this nation's revenues are appropriated.
These head-to-head sessions are supposed to give the candidates opportunities to share their policies with the voters, but if the reactions in the media are any indication, nobody is much interested in the candidates' policies and instead only on their demeanor, poise, temperament, sense of timing, appearance and overall quality of performance. If you didn't know that this was all about the selection of the President of the United States, you might think that the commentary comprised a review of a motion picture or a television program or the contestants in a beauty pageant.
People who listened to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on radio thought that Nixon won, but those who watched it on television, which medium amplified Kennedy's good looks to tremendous advantage, concluded that Nixon lost. We are visual creatures, and how things look often matter more than how they sound---or even how they are. One explanation for the closeness of this race is that the undecided voters are still undecided. They find Obama and Romney equally facile, glib and ineffectual, all qualities that are magnified by the superficiality of the "debate" process. But these characteristics are of little use when leadership is required, and the next four years will put an enormous premium on the quality of genuine leadership.