Framing silence and absence regarding presidential debates: successful and unsuccessful performances of democratic leadership.

Author:Olson, Kathryn M.

As communication scholars, we know--or believe we know--that televised debates "matter" in election campaigns. The 2012 election cycle seemed to confirm the importance of debates. Newton Minow, who was instrumental in initiating the televised Kennedy-Nixon clash and reviving presidential debates in 1976 when President Ford challenged Carter after a 16-year hiatus, claimed, "The debates are the only time during presidential campaigns when the major candidates appear together side by side under conditions that they do not control" (as cited in Hertzberg, 2012, p. 32). Debates provide a relatively "unfiltered and unedited" (Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988, p. 6) opportunity for voters to see candidates operate face-to-face and "enable voters to see and hear the candidates in a sustained manner, outside the protective cocoons of their handlers, packagers, stage managers, consultants, PACs, and SuperPACs. They oblige the candidates to speak for themselves" (Hertzberg, 2012, p. 32). Because conventional wisdom is that debates offer the most honest glimpse of candidates' character and potential, their discourse regarding and during these important encounters is treated as having revelatory significance. Even in 2012, "for the great majority of voters, Presidential politics takes place almost entirely on television, which provides three main political venues: what the pros call 'free media' [news coverage]; paid advertising; and the debates" (Hertzberg, 2012, p. 31). Hertzberg (2012) explains the limits of the first two venues (pp. 31-32), concluding, "Especially against the background of the increasing ghastliness of other aspects of twenty-first-century campaigning, the debates are of inestimable value" (p. 32).

Contrary to understandable suspicion that new media might diminish the role of televised debates, Shear (2011) claims the opposite: increased interest in and emphasis on following the debates. Indeed, televised debates, even in the primaries, have become big draws. In the 2012 campaign, the Republican primary debates were "the defining feature of the contest," with both candidates and viewers relying on them to give voters insights into their alternatives (Balz, 2011, para. 2). The 9th of the whopping 27 GOP primary debates "was the most popular cable program in its time slot" (Shear, 2011, p. 14). The debates, which attracted Democratic as well as Republican viewers (Shear, 2011, p. 14), "are infotainment for the politically interested. They have become a form of reality TV" (Balz, 2011, para. 19; see also Hertzberg, 2012; Shear, 2011) that invites tough viewer verdicts. This cycle's general election debates richly illustrate this point with Big Bird, laughing Biden, bayonets, and binders full of women inviting immediate viewer judgments and internet memes.

How televised debates might matter is the focus of much research. The Racine Group's 2002 summary "White Paper" concluded that format, participants, what candidates say, candidates' presentation, media coverage, and diffusion all matter at some level (e.g., stimulating voter interest in the campaign, motivating the base, getting voters to the polls, voter learning, reinforcing or changing voters' perceptions of candidates). Various analyses since range from showing how the evolution of a myth about the importance of personal appearance marginalizes public argument (Herbeck & Mehltretter, 2005) to viewing debates as significant episodes in open dialectics that "put democratic traditions and practices to the test" (Goodnight, Majdik, & Kephart, 2009, p. 273).

One aspect of how presidential campaign debates matter that seems fundamental, and that has not been researched, is candidates' silences and absences regarding a debate. In practice, candidates frequently threaten to be or are absent from, petition to be included in, and clash over debates. This essay examines how tactical uses and rhetorical constructions of candidates' silence or absence regarding a debate compete to shape, confirm, or revise assessments about their relative democratic leadership abilities and about the nature and health of our democratic system. Debate silences or absences are taken as meaningful, and players will attempt to frame that meaning in light of their preferred narratives. Framing by all candidates is dynamic and continuous (Silverstein, 2011). As tactical choices are made, countered, work or fail, are reported and commented on, and become part of the campaign's facticity, there is constant pressure to weave the results into a coherent narrative whole that tells voters something about the relative characters of those vying to be the nation's foremost democratic leader. Basing its argument in literature on debates as democratic leadership performances, campaign silences, and political gaffes, this essay examines the rhetoric in four cases to sketch a range of factors in and variations on how a presidential candidate's debate silence or absence might matter and why.


Serving as president means performing an expected role--and the debate process is part of the audition. Meyrowitz (1985) notes, "Americans today accept that the President himself [sic] must be a skilled actor and that he must perform the role of President rather than simply be President" (p. 303). Even though each incumbent develops a distinctive style, there are public expectations that any president is capable of performances that resonate with the mythic presidency. A prudent presidential performance fragment balances "political necessity and the public's romantic expectation of phronesis" or exhibits political strength while simultaneously playing the role of "nonpartisan leader and protector of the commonweal" (Erickson, 2000, p. 142). Prudent performance fragments also broadly "honor the dominant ideology's wisdom and assert political realities" and signal active leadership (Erickson, 2000, p. 144). Given public expectations, situated prudent performances heighten a president's (or candidate's) authority, while imprudent ones "can signal confusion, incompetence, or insensitivity" (Erickson, 2000, pp. 142, 148).

During an election competition, presidential candidates are especially vulnerable to charges of imprudence, given the constant public and media scrutiny as well as active efforts by opponents to frame them negatively and position themselves as prudent. Amid the well-controlled front of a campaign, performances recognized as (or turned, after the fact, into) gaffes are taken as "indexical of something deeper, an inwardly pointing sign revelatory of personality or character or identity, and thus a diagnostic bit of 'truth' that has emerged to public view despite all precautions taken" (Silverstein, 2011, p. 169). In the high-stakes presidential election context, the slightest "faults of performance" are "subject to transformation into performances of faultiness," especially if there are even unsupported suspicions over the related aspect of character already "'in the air' of public opinion" (Silverstein, 2011, p. 170). If a persuasively framed performance features high drama, it might even silence critics and minimize the need for further "inconvenient" (Erickson, 2000, p. 141) nuances of argument and evidence.

Presidential debates offer particularly potent performance fragments of how candidates presumably will rhetorically enact the expected presidential personae and meet the conflicting demands of democratic leadership. Herbeck (1994) indicates that a democratic government draws its legitimacy from the people via elections; consequently, "debates, featuring an open exchange among the candidates, are an important part of the presidential legitimation ritual" (p. 267). As Lucaites (1989) explains, democracy holds that the president is a servant to popular sovereignty, but the citizens' only direct opportunity to determine who will be executor of the public trust comes once in four years. Citizens must decide which candidate seems to fulfill the expectation that "competent and ethical leaders will utilize their power and authority to manage the practical, day-to-day tension between the potentially contradictory commitments to and " (Lucaites, 1989, p. 232) or at least ably give reasons after the fact demonstrating that their choices were motivated by a desire to serve public interest. As televised debates have become the centerpiece of presidential elections, voters look to them as "the primary forum in which the ritualistic enactment of the takes place" (Lucaites, 1989, p. 233). Candidates' very participation in debates symbolically legitimates the democratic system and performs their commitment to . One implication is that refusal or reluctance to participate reflects on both the candidate and the health of the system.

Likewise, Hinck (1993) states that debates enact the community's political values and reassure the public that their political system is capable of producing able leaders with democratic character (pp. 222-223). Debates' primary purpose is to present and select candidates for national office, leaders who will be tested by unknowable challenges during the next four years (Hinck, 1993, pp. 2-3). Voters assess candidates' performances of presidential leadership and character under the stress of symbolic attack, which ranges over enactment and defense of non-partisan community values (see Hinck, 1993, pp. 10-11). Performances that interrupt one's positive character narrative, or that confirm circulating negative character suspicions, take on heightened significance. In such a context, "gaffes, or what can be turned into gaffes-after-the-fact, become lenses that make sharp the incompatibilities and incoherences of 'the real stuff in the raw material, the inner person" (Silverstein, 2011, p. 172). Debates and the confrontations that surround them offer summarizing, dramatic encounters "in which...

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