Thursday, September 22, 2016

Why Debates?

The first debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is just a few days away. Already I heard one channel promote its "all day coverage." ALL DAY? Why possible need could there be for "all day" coverage? But, more fundamentally, why do we need a presidential debate (let alone 3 of them) at all?

I was 12 at the time, so I can well remember the famous first debate - between Kennedy and Nixon - in 1960. Such debates were an unprecedented novelty then.  In the very first one, which the TV audience famously determined that Kennedy had "won," while radio audiences assumed on the contrary that Nixon had "won," the attractive TV image that Kennedy projected successfully wiped out Nixon's presumed advantage (as Vice President) as the more "experienced" candidate. Given the closeness of that election - the popular vote was something like 49.7% to 49.6% - the debate certainly seemed to have been a major factor. (And it solidified TV's superficial image-making role as the decisive factor in future presidential politics.)

Thereafter, conventional wisdom concluded that debates automatically help the outsider or underdog who benefits from being put on an equal platform with the incumbent or frontrunner. Once everybody realized that, it was problematic whether debates would ever be agreed to again. But then came the historically unique election of 1974. It was obviously in "outsider" Jimmy Carter's interest to debate. But the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, lacking electoral legitimacy and already further weakened by Ronald Reagan's primary and convention challenge, also needed the benefit a debate might offer. So suddenly we had a situation when both sides were open to reinventing the debates. In the end, Ford might have been better off not debating. He lost in a close election. Had he not inadvertently liberated Poland from Soviet domination in one of the debates, who knows how differently the election might have turned out?

President H.W. Bush apparently tried to avoid debating Bill Clinton in 1992, but was pressured to do so in part by the Clinton campaign's calling him "chicken." The result has been that debates between the two (or occasionally among three) presidential candidates have now become routinely expected standard election-year fare. And debates have commonly come to be seen as an opportunity to capture the candidates in a less scripted, less predictable, less candidate-controlled situation (none of which, of course, has anything to do with which of them would make a better president). 

While the debates themselves have often been quite boring, they may provide that rare, unpredictable insight into the personality and character of the candidate. But this year, surely, don't we already know enough about both candidates?

Recently, the veteran political commentator Elizabeth Drew (NYRB) had this to say on the subject of the debates (

The decisive event, they said, would be the first presidential debate on September 26; there would be two more debates but these commentators deemed the first the determining one. This is what’s wrong with the part that debates have come to play in our presidential elections. A one-off event shouldn’t begin to displace the weeks and months of the candidates’ efforts in the campaign. Worse, the qualities that are rewarded in a debate have virtually nothing to do with what’s required to run the government: the sharp one-liner in particular. What does that have to do with solving the great problems the country faces, with dealing with Congress and with foreign leaders? What was the significance of one of the most famous lines of past debates: “There you go again,” (Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter)?

Then there’s the press’s obsession with determining who “won.” I’ve participated in two debates and it never occurred to me that someone had won them: to name a winner is to make a subjective judgment based on…well, on what? The one-liner or the greater command of the issues? And what does “winning” a debate mean? The debates don’t reward depth of thought or understanding of issues. There’s no time for that. It appears that this year’s debates are being set up by the press to distort the election to a greater degree than ever.

And so, I ask again, Why Debates?

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