If you’re like many politically-aware students at our university, you probably spent last Wednesday night snuggled in front of the television ready to watch the first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. You left the UGLi early, maybe even skipped Wine Wednesday, with big hopes of gaining insight into the various policies of the Republican presidential nominee and the incumbent.

We wanted fierce debate. We wanted to leave our couches with an understanding of exactly where Romney and Obama stand on different issues and how they each plan to drag our bruised nation out of the economic shambles in which it’s found itself.

But it didn’t take long to realize we set our hopes too high. Much too high. In fact, it felt like I was watching a passive-aggressive squabble between two suburbanites, rather than a presidential debate. Poor Jim Lehrer clearly didn’t have any power to mediate the discussion, and seemed to act as more of a comic figure than an actual moderator.

Beneath the layers of political rambling, unanswered questions and blatant lies, however, is an extremely interesting idea regarding debate etiquette. Or maybe debate tradition, for lack of better words.

Let’s be honest, we know that Romney and Obama are far from close pals. They’re fighting a nasty battle with less than a month until the ultimate winner is finally announced and the loser can walk away with his tail between his legs. They trash each other’s policies, approve humiliating commercials and spend whatever it takes to make the opponent look absolutely awful.

From this perspective, the sly smiles and uncomfortable greetings between the candidates prove noteworthy. They raise the question: Is this staged performance and façade a product of debate tradition, or the realization of an ever-growing animosity between two distinct political parties?

The performance was prefaced by a dramatic introduction thanks to Lehrer, the poor fellow who was talked over, cut off and pretty much completely ignored throughout the 90-minute ordeal. He began the night by saying, “The audience here in the hall has promised to remain silent. No cheers, applause, boos, hisses — among other noisy distracting things — so we may all concentrate on what the candidates have to say.” (Although in this case, it apparently wasn’t much.)

After Lehrer announced the “house rules” the candidates strolled on stage, smiles gleaming and arms outstretched to greet the audience and eventually each other. It doesn’t take a psychology major to gauge the immense tension that permeated this handshake and the uncomfortable feelings the candidates shared.

Maybe, just maybe, this façade is used to show a united front that crosses party lines and connects all Americans. However, as Nov. 6 nears, the divide between parties is continuously growing and each side seems to be moving further and further in opposite directions. The two candidates did greet each other on stage with a stark smile and handshake, though just how genuine these gestures were is up for further debate.

In “girl world,” passive aggression is the sneakiest form of aggression out there. It’s being nasty, without actually bearing fangs. It’s the ability to be sly, without coming across as an angry, psychotic bitch. And in the political realm, from what I saw Wednesday night, this doesn’t change much.

President Obama introduced himself and wished his wife a happy anniversary in front of millions of viewers, only to be outdone by a rather feisty Romney. The Republican nominee proclaimed, “And congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary. I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine here — here with me, so I — congratulations.” Well, wasn’t that chock-full of uncomfortable undertones.

The presidential debates are a hybridized performance. One part competitive game, two parts dramatic performance, topped off with enough unspoken tension to make even the meanest mean girl seem like an angel. So yes, the majority of the claims made by each side were false, none of our questions were actually answered and at times we forgot we were in fact witnessing a serious political debate.

But this just leaves more room for us to ponder the social etiquette and underlying tension of this historic, American tradition. Although we’ll never know exactly what either candidate is thinking as he scribbles notes down and smiles eerily during his opponent’s turn to talk, I don’t think it takes much imagination on our part to fill in the blanks.

Sarah Skaluba can be reached at sskaluba@umich.edu.

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