As I looked over the transcript of the vice presidential debate, the first thing that came to mind was David Mamet. The second was “Cupcake Wars.”
If the first presidential debate featured staid, soporific set pieces, each candidate ponderously reciting talking points, the vice presidential matchup was vintage Mamet, marked by choppy dialogue and characters sharing the same stage yet fated never to fully connect.
Indulge me with a telling excerpt, on Mitt Romney’s plan for a 20 percent cut in marginal tax rates:
Moderator Martha Raddatz: Well, let’s talk about this 20 percent. You have refused — and, again — to offer specifics on how you pay for that 20 percent across-the-board tax cut. Do you actually have the specifics? Or are you still working on it, and that’s why you won’t tell voters?
Paul Ryan: Different than this administration, we actually want to have big bipartisan agreements. You see, I understand the —
Raddatz: Do you have the specifics? Do you have the —
Joe Biden: That would — that would be a first for the Republican Congress.
Raddatz: Do you know exactly what you’re doing?
Ryan: Look — look at what Mitt Romney — look at what Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill did. They worked together out of a framework to lower tax rates and broaden the base, and they worked together to fix that . . . . [paragraph deleted for space]
Biden: Can I translate?
Ryan: . . . so we can lower tax rates across the board. Now, here’s why I’m saying this. What we’re saying is, here’s the framework.
Biden: I hope I’m going to get time to respond to this.
Raddatz: You’ll get time.
Ryan: We want to work with Congress — we want to work with the Congress on how best to achieve this. That means successful. Look —
Raddatz: No specifics, again.
Ryan: Mitt — what we’re saying is, lower tax rates 20 percent, start with the wealthy, work with Congress to do it —
Raddatz: And you guarantee this math will add up?
Ryan: Absolutely. Six studies have guaranteed — six studies have verified that this math adds up. But here’s —
Raddatz: Vice President Biden —
Biden: Look —
Biden: Let me translate. Let me have a chance to translate.
The only thing missing was stage directions: As Ryan speaks, Biden smirks and chortles. Also, there was no cursing. “Malarkey,” I’m pretty sure, is not part of the Mamet vocabulary.
The Mamet comparison isn’t simple snarkiness. It underscores the fundamental frustration of this campaign season in general and the debates in particular: The candidates talk past one another. They fail to engage; they evade direct answers. The audience is left unsettled and confused.
Except in this case the audience is voters, not theater-goers. What study to believe? Whose guarantee to trust?
I am a believer in debates in much the same way that Churchill supposedly viewed democracy: the worst form of government, except for all the others.
With the candidates ducking sustained interviews in serious settings, debates offer the last best chance for piercing the fog of competing claims and promises.
Debates have always had an inevitable element of political theater: What, after all, do we remember about the first such televised event in 1960 except sweaty Richard Nixon?
But go back and look at the Kennedy-Nixon debates. They are striking for their seriousness and — this is a relative matter — candor. Ryan invoked John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts, but Kennedy said he “would have no hesitancy in suggesting a tax increase.” So, amazingly enough, did Richard Nixon: “I think it may be necessary that we have more taxes.” These are not your grandfather’s debates — or your grandfather’s Republican Party.
Which brings me to “Cupcake Wars,” the Food Network series that is part of the new genre of reality TV cooking shows.
The “Cupcake Wars” format requires contestants to instantaneously come up with offbeat recipes (creative policymaking), to work with a team (leadership ability), to produce 1,000-cupcake displays under immense time pressure (handling the 3 a.m. phone call). Just imagine candidates in the kitchen, sweating it out. After all, if you can’t stand the heat . . . .
I’m not serious, of course. But I worry that the current recipe fails to give voters adequate nourishment, and the judging we do in the media, emphasizing style over substance, makes matters worse. With candidates, as with cupcakes, fancy presentation is nice. What’s underneath the icing matters most.
Read more on the vice presidential debate: