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In this installment of the Daily Weekly feature "Taking Sides," Dan Person and Matt Driscoll weigh in on the importance of the presidential and vice

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Taking Sides: Do Presidential Debates Matter?

obamaromneydebate-2.jpg
In this installment of the Daily Weekly feature "Taking Sides," Dan Person and Matt Driscoll weigh in on the importance of the presidential and vice presidential debates.

Dan Person thinks the debates are the closest thing we'll get to public accountability these days.

Thanks to some ballsy reporting by The New York Times, we news consumers this year were let in on one of the Washington press corps' dirtiest secrets: quote approval.

That is, reporters agreeing to let officials review their quotes before they are published. The problem with this, obviously, is that it renders a quote more of a canned soundbite than a candid explanation of policy. No wonder Obama has shown a strong preference for one-on-one interviews over press conferences.

Which gets to why the presidential debates are vital.

As canned as many of the zingers may sound, these YouTube spectacles are some of the few moments when we can truly hear Obama and Romney's grapple, in real time, with reporters' important questions.

Granted, the gaffes that inevitably come out of that arrangement are a huge distraction from our political discourse. We here at The Daily Weekly have been downright giddy with binder memes.

But tell me: Under what other circumstances could we have gotten such a crisp dressing down of the Romney tax plan as that provided by Martha Raddatz when she demanded that Paul Ryan, right there under the lights of the camera, state explicitly which tax loopholes he and Romney would close to make the plan work? That was important, and it wouldn't have happened in a quote-approved setting, or even at a press conference where reporters on deadline and hungry for a quote (or a gaffe) are careful to not let their limited time with the candidates get hung up on details.

Sad as it is, debates are the closest we come in America to one of the best guarantees of an accountable government: elected officials facing the public and answering real question in real time. It's a wonder they happen at all.

Find Matt Driscoll's rebuttal on the following page ...

Matt Driscoll says trying to find actual substance in the presidential debates is a lost cause.

When my friend here, Dan Person, says real-live debates are the closest we'll get to public accountability, I respect where he's coming from. I know Mr. Person is a good man, a family man. His heart is in the right place. But facts matter. And, quite simply, and quite sadly, that's a bunch of stuff.

Mr. Person is right about some things. Politicians who've risen to the stature of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney are polished and prepped. They are trained never to let a statement that's not strategically construed flow from their lips, and they do tightly control their exposures. Like so much of life - only amplified to an absurd degree - image and perception are everything in politics. Every time a politician opens his or her mouth, this unavoidable fact is pulsating at the front of their brain. If a politician has any ambition at all, it has to be.

They're either puppets to begin with, or the end goal turns them into puppets. Either way, it's a dirty, often deceptive job.

Do debates create a stage where slip-ups are possible? Where a politician can accidentally stumble and offer something that's not a pre-established talking point? Mistakenly say something unrehearsed? Of course. But let's not confuse these blunders, gaffes, moments of uncertainty, or otherwise awkward interactions with Candy Crowley as actual truth or actual substance. They're simply moments when politicians prove it's impossible to always be on-point.

They're still not saying shit that means anything.

That's because it's all a game. Politicians are playing it. We're playing it. And everyone in between is forced to play along. Watching debates has devolved into something akin to watching a sporting event. People already have their sides, and all they're really looking for is their guy to dominate the competition - not with actual substance or policy talk, mind you, but with zingers and jabs. Most of the time we base who "won" a debate on who was able to make the other side look dumb or say something stupid. Very little of this offers any real insight on how the candidates will govern if elected.

I realize it's dangerous to suggest the presidential debates don't matter - that you don't need to pay attention. I don't want to advocate apathy or non-participation in the democratic process. That would be irresponsible, and it isn't my point.

My point is only that anyone expecting real substance to come out of the debates is destined to be let down. It ain't going to happen; that's not how these things work in our day and age. Debates simply serve as a more contentious, more spontaneous and more dangerous venue for politicians to deliver their carefully crafted messages. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail. But very rarely does anyone say anything that matters in the long run.

And if it's something real your searching for, rather than following the debates word for word, follow the reaction to the sparring. How we're told a candidate performed, and how the media, blogosphere, Twittersphere and meme-osphere rates these performances will ultimately have a far bigger influence on the vote come November than anything that's said on stage.

Unfortunately, that's the world we live in these days.

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