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SA should test presidential wannabes in live debate

The United States presidential debates – dating from 1960 and drawing about 60 million television viewers – are a sober affair, quite unlike the song-and-dance cabaret that President Jacob Zuma locally relies on to lure voters.

This week saw first of three debates between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Though the debates rarely in themselves change the course of the race, they are critical to maintaining a presidential hopeful’s momentum, or checking the momentum of their opponent.

This is the moment where America puts the two who wish to lead it alongside one another for easy comparison and has them argue it out. Intellectual pugilism is admittedly not the only skill demanded of a US president, but it does at least serve to distinguish the brainy from the brain dead.

Not that it always matters. George W Bush, an empty cranial vessel if there ever was one but blessed with impudent charm, bested the sneeringly clever Al Gore in the 2000 debates.

Nevertheless, the live debates are worthy of replication in any democracy, even in those with different electoral systems from the US one. In 2010 the British for the first time had debates between the three party leaders vying to be prime minister. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg delivered an impressive performance, which was credited with breaking old voting patterns and ultimately delivering him the deputy prime ministership.

Leadership is a bit like sex appeal. The more one tries to pin it down, the more elusive it becomes. And while one can work hard to mimic the style of those who do have it, that’s actually a bit pointless: if one doesn’t have the spark, lashings of bling and glitz aren’t going to help much.

While such debates are helpful in giving voters a sense of the candidate’s charisma and demeanour under fire, this unfortunately does not suffice to guarantee good leadership. Clegg has been unimpressive as deputy prime minister, while George W was an international disaster for the USA and presided over an economic maelstrom whose malevolent effects will for years yet hang over whoever wins the November 6 election.

So one should not write off Zuma merely because he plays the political clown and one struggles to imagine him – based on past parliamentary performances of muddled thinking, clumsy evasion, and garbled argument – taking on Helen Zille in a national televised debate. Or perhaps more germanely, in the light of the African National Congress leadership conference in December, taking on Kgalema Motlanthe.

One just doesn’t know what would happen if Zuma took the leap. It was widely assumed that Obama would easily win this week’s presidential debate.

After all, he is a fantastic orator whose gift of the gab won him one of history’s least deserved Nobel Peace Prizes after mere months in office and he without embarrassment compares himself to Abraham Lincoln. In the other corner was Romney, a gaffe-prone white scion of privilege who dismisses almost half the American nation as not deserving of his attention if he were elected, and who truly seems puzzled that this should be an issue.

But as it happened, it was Obama who appeared lacklustre, while Romney came out scrapping. The pundits and a CBS poll of uncommitted voters scored it as a two-to-one for Romney.

As the Los Angeles Times put it, this has delivered a new narrative: “Until Wednesday, the campaign story was that Obama was building an apparently unshakable lead; now Obama looks as if he’s lost a step and Romney’s showing new life.”

So, there’s hope yet for Zuma, with his own false steps and falsetto giggle. Will the obsequious SA Broadcasting Corporation take up the challenge? Nah, not likely.