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Why Have Debates?

I find presidential debates painful to watch. The main reason is that isn’t they aren’t really debates, at least in the traditional sense of extended presentations of dueling arguments on a single, predetermined subject. When Abraham Lincoln confronted Stephen Douglas in 1858, the opening speaker spoke for an hour, was followed by a 90 minute response from his opponent, and then offered a 30 minute rebuttal (Lincoln and Douglas alternated speaking first). The encounter between Obama and Romney two weeks ago, by contrast, consisted of a series ten-minute segments in which the candidates answered questions posed by a moderator.

That format transforms ancient tradition of political rhetoric into a kind of dual interview. As such, it encourages the participants to pursue “zingers” and non-sequitur soundbites. There’s no question that Romney’s performance was more effective than Obama’s. Read in transcript [1], however, it develops no argument or vision.

There’s reason to expect that tomorrow’s encounter will be even more inane. One problem is the “townhall” format, in which voters ask impromptu questions. Leaving the choice of subjects to a moderator is bad enough: who cares what Jim Lehrer thinks is worth discussing? But soliciting questions from a relatively large audience almost guarantees incoherence.

A second problem is that participation in the townhall meeting will be limited to undecided voters [2]. That means that they’ll be representative of only a tiny slice of the electorate: about 6% of likely voters [3], according to Reuters. Why should their questions have priority over other citizens?

It’s bad enough that citizens whose views reflect the vast majority of likely voters are excluded from the debate. What’s even worse is that undecideds are, speaking generally, the least informed and interested of likely voters. They haven’t made up their minds because they don’t know or care much about politics. As a result, they tend to be more concerned with character and manner than ideological commitments or specific policies.

The campaigns can’t be blamed for using debates to go after the few “sellable” voters who remain. Journalists and commentators, however, should not be shy about identifying the farcical character of the exercise. With the exception of the Nixon-Kennedy encounter in 1960, debates between the nominees became a regular feature of presidential politics only in 1976. Unless the candidates want to return to something resembling Lincoln and Douglas’s example, we’d be better off without them.

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#1 Comment By chipotle On October 15, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

The length of the average soundbite has fallen to something like [4].

Compared to the usual glimpses of the candidates, these debates really are modern versions of the Lincoln-Douglas affairs.

#2 Comment By Patrick On October 15, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

I’m not sure why anyone would bother watching a debate, but I think you’ve hit on something here:

“Journalists and commentators, however, should not be shy about identifying the farcical character of the exercise.”

Well; journalists and commentators are in the industry that needs to convince people that politics is important; which is why they will never be honest. If you make a living discussing this crap, then you have to try to convince people it is worth hearing about.

Everyone predicted Romney would win the GOP nom. Everyone predicted that there would be no landslide. In truth, there hasn’t been anything new to say about the 2012 election in, like, a year…And yet you can’t expect the “election news industry” to just say “nothing different today, folks.” So they try to find molehills to fill out news cycles.

Seriously; why would anyone watch a debate who wasn’t an “election industry salesman”?

#3 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On October 15, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

Presidential debates are de facto beauty pagent competitions. They are more form than substance; targeting a dumbed-down electorate on a very superficial, base level.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 15, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

Undecided voters: it’s hard to choose between two things that don’t have a dime’s worth of policy difference between them.

It’s the political equivalent of consumer choice in the old Soviet Union’s GUM department stores with their vast selection.

How could you make up your mind, when you’d rather turn up your nose?

#5 Comment By TomB On October 15, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

Sam Goldman wrote:

“Unless the candidates want to return to something resembling Lincoln and Douglas’s example, we’d be better off without them.”

Sort of the unconscious recognition of the problem: The candidates are running to be *our* representatives. To get *our* votes.

And yet … *they* have somehow maneuvered themselves into the position of deciding how that process goes?

I think the problem goes back to FDR. Prior to him I just don’t see the American public regarding our Presidents or other political representatives as some sort of moral saviors, or at least as potential moral saviors. Beginning with FDR however that seems the changed view, with every candidate’s clear highest aspiration to be viewed that way.

But … of *course* they want to be viewed that way. What other way would give them so much power credence, respectability and etc.?

The fault is ours, hugely contributed to however by a media that for various self-interested reasons likes the idea of us not governing ourselves and instead being “led” by some shining “leader” who will uplift us instead of just watching out for our interests.

#6 Pingback By TAC Digest: October 15 | The American Conservative On October 15, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

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#7 Comment By JohnR22 On October 16, 2012 @ 9:41 am

Of course we need debates….but I agree that the formats stink and the moderators have too much influence. I’d prefer an old style debate on critical issues where the candidates go back and forth and are able to ask each other direct questions. The moderator’s role would be limited to enforcing time limits and perhaps interjecting a few follow-ups.

But…we do need the debates. And I think the issue of candidate body language and mannerisms is very important too. Some claim that only the words matter and the rest of the stuff is irrelevant. I disagree. IMO you can tell a lot about a person…their honesty, their dedication, etc….by watching their body language.

#8 Comment By Michael Tracey On October 16, 2012 @ 11:40 am

To JohnR22:

I agree that important insights can be gleaned from judging the candidates’ body language, but political media so often fixate on mannerisms at the expense of scrutinizing the truth or falsity of a candidate’s claims.

#9 Pingback By Debatable « Rhymes With Cars & Girls On October 17, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

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#10 Comment By Michael On October 22, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

These debates should be recorded in advance, so that Fact Checking can be performed before they air!