Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Why Debates?


With the conventions coming to their predictable close, can the debates be far behind? Yes, the absurd quadrennial exercise known as the Presidential Debates will soon be very much upon us. Having institutionalized them in 1976, we can't seem to liberate ourselves from them, even when many voters will have already gone to the polls in early voting or voted absentee by mail before the last of the debates! (The first debate will take place on Tuesday, September 29.)

The original set of modern debates, the four famous Kennedy-Nixon Debates in 1960, created the fashion, although they were qualitatively different from the debates we have now. They were very issue-oriented and presumed an audience both better informed and more willing to listen to policy discussions that anyone presumes now.

Of course, what made those initial debates decisive in the end was that they were televised. They solidified television's mid-century dominance in American political life. They likely elected Kennedy, in that his good looks and better appreciation of how to command the TV medium (wearing make-up, looking at the camera instead of at his opponent, etc.) seem to have been decisive. Famously, those who listened to the first debate on the radio thought Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV considered Kennedy the winner. Ultimately the biggest winner of all was, of course, TV itself.

Nixon's narrow 1960 loss taught him to avoid future debates. It also stands to reason that debates will appeal primarily to a candidate who believes he or she needs the exposure and the status debates afford, while front runners may wish to avoid them completely if they can get away with doing so. The revival of debates in 1976 was facilitated in part by the atypical fact that both candidates - the unelected incumbent (Gerald Ford) and the outsider challenger (Jimmy Carter) - both believed that they might benefit. (Debates were also made possible because they were sponsored not by the networks - still bound by "Equal Time" legislation - but by an independent organization, at that time the League of Women Voters.) After 1976, these performances became an increasingly accepted part of the routine of presidential elections, which it has became harder and harder for a particular candidate to get out of having to participate in. So we seem stuck with them.

That first post-1960 modern debate on September 23, 1976, amply illustrated the absurdity of the entire exercise. As those of us who were around then will likely remember, the debate was interrupted by a sudden loss of sound for 27 minutes, during which the President of the United States and the man who would be the next President simply stood there in place, seemingly helpless. As Rick Perlstein describes the scene in his latest book, Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980 (Simon & Schuster, 2020, p. 13).

"But the candidates had been trained by their handlers—trained within an inch of their lives—that one could only lose a televised debate, so they should not try anything, anything at all, that risked a mistake, drilled not to sit down, or make any motion that might suggest weakness; indeed, it had required the intervention of a kindly stage manager just for the two men to wipe their sweaty brows during the interruption, because they would only do so when the cameras turned away. Some contest of ideas."


And this is how we choose our presidents! If anything, although the technology may have improved, the quality of the debates has probably even worsened. 

But, absent a candidate courageous enough to walk away from this nonsense, we are still stuck with debates, even though this year for sure we have a situation in which both candidates are well known enough and need no special media event to introduce them to the American electorate. 

But, if we are in fact stuck with them, might there be ways we could improve them and make them more useful for voters? How about earlier debates before voting actually begins? How about getting rid of audiences which distort the event with their partisan applause and cheer leading? (Needless to say, there was no such audience at the Kennedy-Nixon Debates. Presumably we won't have them this year because of the virus.) How about fewer questions with more time for more substantive answers, something that would make it less about the all-consuming goal of coming up with the perfect, repeatable soundbite? Even better, how about broadening the panel of questioners to include people who have a "beyond-the-Beltway "outlook? Why do they all have to be journalists? How about a scientist, for example, asking about the candidates' plans to deal with Covid-19 - or climate change? Or perhaps a teacher to ask about education policy?

Of course, other than the necessary accommodations this year to the pandemic, none of that is likely to happen. After all, this is just how we do it now - at least until we try something else.

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