ERUSALEM -- J So the first public debate is over, and it seems that Gov. Mitt Romney performed better than President Obama. Now, does this help the American voters in making a better decision on Election Day?
I doubt it, because public debates have nothing to do with the capability of a candidate, once elected, to effectively carry out his job at the top.
Here is a bit of my own experience. Between 1984 and 1986, Shimon Peres, today’s president of Israel (a figure head), served as prime minister, leading a government of national unity (Labor and Likud). In his short term in power, only two years, he managed to pull Israeli troops out of most of Lebanon’s territory; and to cut a three-digit inflation overnight.
How did Peres accomplish such two awesome, controversial, tasks? By exerting leadership and by being politically savvy. Not only did he believe that getting out of the Lebanese quagmire was the right thing to do, and that killing inflation is in the best interest of Israel, but he also knew how to work the political corridors and gain support for his acts. I remember my salary being cut by 30 percent, and yet neither I nor anybody else complained, because we all felt that this was the right thing to do in such a dire economic situation, and that we should all contribute our share, to put the national economic wagon back on track again. And the parties we had voted for endorsed that.
While analysts believe that his term was one of the finest in the history of the Israeli government, the voters were not as appreciative, and it took Peres another 10 years to run for the office again. It was 1996, then, that as acting prime minister, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres showed up in a television studio for a debate with his young contender, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Being one of the Rabin Boys, I wasn’t included in Peres’ inner circle, but I nevertheless suggested to one of his aides to make sure Peres shows up to the debate well rested. He said he would try.
The following night, watching television anxiously, I was shocked when the two candidates entered the studio. The young Netanyahu, looking so fresh, came across vigorous, ready for the fight, while Peres looked old and tired. Turned out that Netanyahu had wisely booked a room in an adjacent hotel and slept like a baby, while Peres had spent most of the night at his office, preparing for the debate and answering urgent phone calls.
It was a TV disaster. Like in the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, if you turned your eyes away from the screen and only listened to what he had to say, then Peres was much better than Netanyahu: He sounded more informed, more factual, more experienced. Yet people probably did watch their TV sets that night, because on Election Day they voted Peres out.
Am I saying that that debate alone decided the election? I’m not sure about that, but here is some telling data: In 1996 Israelis voted for a party and gave a second vote for one of the candidates running for premier. Labor, under the leadership or Shimon Peres, received 818,741 votes (27.5 percent), thus becoming the biggest party, while Likud, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, received 767,401 votes (25.8 percent). When it came to the direct election of the prime minister, however, Netanyahu received 1,501,023 votes (50.5 percent) while Peres received 1,471,566 votes (49.5 percent). Peres, then, received some 30,000 fewer votes as an individual candidate, but some 50,000 more as party leader. Isn’t that thought provoking?