The Purpose of Presidential Debates
MIN READOct 24, 2012 | 09:00 GMT
(Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Monday night's presidential foreign policy debate probably won't change the opinion of many voters. Proponents of President Barack Obama are still convinced that Mitt Romney is a fool and a liar. Proponents of former Gov. Romney have the same view of the president.
Of course, this is normal in any American presidential race. Along with the eternal conviction that the party in power is destroying the country, we have regarded Abraham Lincoln, during the 1860 election, as a simple-minded country bumpkin with a touch of larceny; Franklin Roosevelt as a rich dilettante and socialist; and Dwight Eisenhower as a bumbling fool who is lazy and incapable of understanding the complexity of the world — this about the man who, during World War II, led the most complex military coalition on the planet to victory.
We like to think that our politics have never been less civil than they are today. Given that Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of being a prostitute, Grover Cleveland was said to have illegitimate children and Lyndon Johnson faced the chant "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" I will assert that the Obama-Romney campaign doesn't even register on the vilification scale.
The founders wouldn't have minded this culture of contempt for politicians. In founding the republic, their fundamental fear was that the power of the state would usurp the freedoms of the states and individuals. They purposefully created a political regime so complex that it is, in its normal state, immobilized. They would not have objected if professional politicians were also held in contempt as an additional protection. Ironically, while the founders opposed both political parties and professional politicians, preferring to imagine that learned men take time from their daily lives to make the sacrifice of service, many became full-time politicians and vilified one another. Thomas Jefferson's campaign said of John Adams that he had a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams' campaign stated that Jefferson was "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw sired by a Virginia mulatto father." And Jefferson and Adams were friends. I would suggest suspending the idea that we have never had so vicious a politics.
Let me move to a more radical thought. Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are capable men, as well intentioned as ambitious men seeking power can be. Just as I doubt that Jefferson and Adams were as stupid and malicious as their campaigns tried to portray one another, the same can be said of Romney and Obama. I am not suggesting for a moment that the circus of accusations stop, however. To the contrary, seeing how one endures slander is an outstanding measure of a leader's character and an opportunity to learn how the candidate will react to the sorts of unreasonable and unfair conditions that the president is sure to encounter.
At their best, debates test a candidate's coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while convincing the viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.
A president will face a world that does not wish the United States well in all cases and an opposition that will try anything, fair or foul, to make the president fail. A president who breaks down when he is mistreated — as Edmund Muskie, a senator running for president in 1972, did over charges made against his wife — is a non-starter. Muskie's campaign immediately collapsed, as it should have. A president who expects to be treated fairly is an immediate liability.
The True Objective of Debates
A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy on any complex matter in 90 seconds. The debates between Lincoln and Steven Douglas did go far in that direction, but then it wasn't on national television, and it was for senator of Illinois, not the presidency. That left room for contemplation. It should be remembered that prior to the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, there were no debates, partly because there was no television and partly, perhaps, because the ability to debate was not seen as the appropriate measure of a president.
Debates test one thing: the ability to quickly respond to questions of numbing complexity that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put a premium on being fast and clever but don't say much about how smart a candidate is. Nor are they meant to, in part because being smart, in an academic sense, is not essential to be president — as many have demonstrated. At their best, debates test a candidate's coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while convincing the viewers that he or she is both personable and serious.
That is, after all, what leadership is about. We have had enormously intelligent presidents who simply couldn't lead. Here, I think of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both of whom had substantial and demonstrable intellects but neither of whom, when confronted by the disastrous, could rapidly contrive both a response and a commanding and reassuring presence in public. In that sense, their intellects betrayed them. Each wanted the right answer, when what was needed was a fast one. Each was succeeded by someone who could provide a fast answer. FDR's famous first 100 days did not solve the Depression, but they did give the sense that someone was in charge. FDR and Ronald Reagan could reassure the country that they knew what they were doing while they rapidly tried things that might work.
Therefore, the question of who won Monday's debate is not one that a viewer who spends his time focused on foreign policy can answer. The candidates weren't speaking to those who make their livings involved in or watching foreign affairs. Nor can we possibly extract from the debate what either candidate intends to do in foreign policy, because conveying that was not what they were trying to do. They were trying to show how quickly and effectively they could respond to the unexpected, and that they were leaders in the simplest sense of being both likeable and commanding, which is the incredibly difficult combination the republic demands of its presidents.
It is important to remember that for most of our history there were no televisions and no debates. Knowledge of the candidates filtered through speeches and letters. The distance between the president and the public was even greater than today. In a sense, the imperial presidency — the president as first among equals of the three branches of government — really began with FDR, who used radio brilliantly. But there were no debates or public press conferences in which to challenge him.
The distance collapsed with television and rapid-fire interplays, yet at the same time increased in another way, as the president became the most public and pseudo-known character in government. I say pseudo-known because, in fact, the president's greatest skill lies in revealing himself selectively, in a way and to the extent that it enhances his power.
What could be sensed in debates were things like meanness of spirit, ability to listen, willingness to improvise and, ultimately, there was a chance to look for humor and good will. There was also a danger. The debate put a premium on articulateness, but it is not clear that the well-spoken candidate — or at least the candidate who could speak most clearly most quickly — also thought more clearly. There are many people who think clearly but speak slowly while acting quickly. They are not meant for Bob Schieffer or Candy Crowley's meat grinder.
The subject of the debate and the specific answers in the debate are doubly unimportant. The winner of the debate will be the one whose soul, when glimpsed, appears able to withstand the burdens of the presidency.
The point of this is to continue a previous argument I have been making. The issues-based candidacy is a fallacy, especially because events determine the issues, and the most important events, such as 9/11 and the financial crash, are not always expected. Therefore, reality divides the candidate's policy papers from the candidate's policies.
I am arguing that the subject of the debate and the specific answers in the debate are doubly unimportant. First, the nature of these debates makes coherent presentation impossible. Second, the stated policies, such as they are, have little to do with the results of the debate. Nor will the better debater win. The winner of the debate will be the one whose soul, when glimpsed, appears able to withstand the burdens of the presidency. Romney's surge had less to do with Obama's performance and more to do with what the viewer learned of Romney.
This has always been what American presidential campaigns are about. All that has happened is that television intensified it and the debate purified it. A debate is a 90-minute opportunity to see a candidate under pressure. What the viewer determines he saw will be critical.
I am also making a parallel argument that our perception of today's political campaigns as uniquely vicious is untrue. We have always been brutal to our candidates, but this served a purpose. We may not know what his policy on trade reform is, but we need to know what kind of person he is for the unexpected issues that will come faster and be more deadly than any moderator's questions. I think this is the purpose debates serve. They are not some public policy review but a dissection of the soul of someone who wants to be president. It is not necessarily a good one, or always an accurate one. It is, however, why we have them.
The question may come up as to who I think won the debate. My opinion on that is no better than anyone else's, nor, as I pointed out, do I think it really matters. The winner of the debate may or may not have persuaded enough voters of his virtue to be elected. But in the end, our response to the debate is idiosyncratic. What moved me may not have moved others. After all, the country appears divided down the middle on this election, so obviously we are seeing different things. Therefore, who I think won the debate is as irrelevant as who I think should be president. Besides, there are more important questions than our own opinions on the candidates. For me, one of those is trying to understand what we are doing when we elect a president.