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Presidential Stage Fright


See the man with the stage fright
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.

— “Stage Fright,” The Band

The manifestations of last night’s presidential debate have finally set in and we can’t help but imagine how dull and annoying the celebration inside the inner sanctum of Romney’s camp must be. We can only hope that the lowly staffers and interns swarming around their Republican chieftains were sneaking off with their miniature bottles of booze to indulge in safe quarters away from the Mormon leader. We say this with experience as one of us knows first hand just how mundane a LDS soiree can be, having flirted with their offspring long ago.

Lunesta would have likely been more stimulating than Obama and Romney exchanging handshakes on issues ranging from Medicare to taxes. It was clear Obama, ill-prepared and perhaps on a sedative himself, was not expecting much in the way of competition. Typically reserved and aloof in front of the bright lights and big cameras, Obama was cool to the point of frigidity. Lost without his teleprompter, Obama stumbled over his talking points on numerous occasions. Romney on the other hand, with no stately matters on his desk as he awakens except to worry about the fluctuations of his blind trust, had been prepping for Obama for the past month. But even that doesn’t explain his hyper-aggressiveness. Perhaps someone slipped him his first cup of coffee in the Green Room.

As per usual, the Republican primary debates were far more entertaining, especially the early set, with Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul on stage – expanding the discourse and humor far beyond the yawning Lehrer affair.

Which brings us to the moderator Mr. Jim Lehrer. If Obama looked sedate, moderator Jim Lehrer seemed pre-embalmed.  This other Big Bird of PBS was forced to smirk as Romney assured him he’d pull the public funds from his salary.  Less of a moderator and more like a grandfather that has too much arthritis to wrestle with the youngsters, Lehrer put forth one of the worst performances in presidential debate history. An inept and deferential interviewer, Lehrer failed to prod the two out of their comfort zones. Several times Lehrer assured the audience that, yes, indeed these two in fact differ (Even when, bizarrely, Obama admitted that he and Romney shared the same position on gutting Social Security–true no doubt, but you’d think that Obama would at least try to pretend their was space between their entrenched neoliberal positions.). A lot. How? Just take their word for it. Next question.

Real issues? Hardly. The topic of the night was allegedly domestic policy. You know, all those things that impact our daily lives. Romney loves coal. Obama supports it too, just a little less so. The deficit? Bad stuff. Taxes, that’s a necessary evil folks, so suck it up millionaires and let us spend. Is the economy on the rebound? We sure do love Wall Street, anyhoo. Obama couldn’t pounce, or worse, wouldn’t. Romney was in the driver’s seat for the whole 90-minute ride, with Lehrer and Obama in the backseat passing each other the bong. Pull the plug on PBS? No problem, just give me another pull on that thing, man.

Having more time to respond to the ‘questions’ proved to mean very little. Obama had a whole four extra minutes to attack Romney. But why didn’t he, you ask? Because Obama isn’t even quite sure how to attack or on what grounds he should proceed. He’s a passive-aggressive personality, with the emphasis on passive. (The aggression Obama reserves for the left-wing of his party, particularly black left wingers.) Typically Obama’s popularity and arrogance matter far more than any sort of tangible substance. Last night Mitt was the new jock in town – more arrogant and jacked up to drive his way to the hoop.

It’s certainly difficult to imagine that we are going to be forced to suffer through two more of these filthy galas – not counting the Biden/Ryan match coming up next week. Vice presidential spars are always far more contentious and palpable. With only one outing they will have more to prove and a better arena to do it in. Issues of course are of little matter, it’s pure fun and games.

Outside the debate last night in Colorado, two well-meaning progressive presidential candidates spoke with Amy Goodman in a mock debate format.  Their points were made clearly and articulately. Jill Stein of the Green Party, as well as Mr. Independent Rocky Anderson, the former Mayor of Salt Lake City, were full of concerns (dismantle the big banks and end the wars, for starters) that need to be heard but never will as long as Jim Lehrer and the Commission on Presidential Debates conspire to exclude reasonable dissent.

No, the first of the three presidential debates was not a debate at all – it was a sign of just how tepid and boring presidential politics in our country have become. In a sense we all should be with those young Republicans enjoying libations. We just ought to be sipping ours for quite different reasons.

Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format He can be reached at

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest books are Born Under a Bad Sky and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format.  He can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter@brickburner

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