When it comes to political debates among presidential candidates, several generalities are being accepted as “political truisms” without being critically challenged in the news media. These debates are said to be necessary for the electorate to get to know the candidates and the issues; and, being able to eloquently present one’s views goes a long way toward scoring high in public opinion polls that in turn make voters’ attention gravitate towards candidates who do well.
Nonetheless, it is well recognized that political debates are mostly about individual performance; staged verbal pugilism with an anticipated measure for the unexpected. It goes without saying that appearing in a nationwide public forum is appealing to all presidential candidates as a means to get free political advertising. But debates are risky events. Candidates engage in a political version of Russian roulette in which wise or ill-chosen words could make or break any of them. Additionally, the format forces candidates to expose themselves in contrived situations allowing the electorate to engage mostly in political voyeurism, which is what these debates are all about. Being oversold to the public as an essential part of being elected, presidential debates miseducate the public by suggesting that winners tend to make better presidents.
Such truism practically forces candidates to participate; those who refuse stand to be seen as showing fear of their opponents, something that considerably lowers their chances at the polls. This notion suggests that participation guarantees that the electorate will see candidates performing under circumstances similar to what they would face once elected to the presidency. This, however, is not the case; far from it.
Since the essence of political debates is performance, in the absence of a heavy dosage of political Viagra, those who underperform throughout this exercise are doomed, regardless of other significant qualities that may better relate to the job of being president. The need to perform well may also distort the candidates’ political agenda—as well as the electorate’s understanding of the issues–by bringing to the fore extreme views, and making absurd and patently untrue comments–in their need to compete for the attraction of voters.
Once elected to the office such tendency leads, domestically, to public disappointment while in foreign affairs can be outright reckless. The extreme alternative is to engage in trivial platitudes (“I’ll make the best commander in chief; I will restore America’s greatness, etc.) that each candidate is obliged to say, as if the other candidates might dare say the opposite.
The judges of these debates, the voters and media pundits, expect a reasonable degree of eloquence from each candidate. Candidates are told to show assertiveness, decisiveness, and courage second to none, all of which can be staged. Such theatrics appeal to a largely politically uneducated electorate that can easily get lost in a dense forest of words and issues, which makes visual performance even more important. These debates also require individual “put downs,” snarky comments, and a show of belligerence that may have little to do with the issues but score high in the eyes of the electorate and the media. Delivering verbal knockdowns and sarcastic one-liners are prized as being indicative of presidential material. Ironically, such behavior does not rank high in the education of our children and are not well-regarded as being typical of a statesperson.
But, in the end, is performance in political debates a sound indicator of presidential leadership? By far the most seriously unchallenged axiom regarding these debates–one that pundits along with the electorate are compelling candidates to accept–is the belief that anyone who is not able to think and react quickly on his/her feet to questions about national security, the economy, or other more esoteric issues is not worthy of being presidential material. Is this accurate? One would hope not.
Could we entertain a president who makes decisions by shooting from the hip, recklessly and impulsively coming up with simplistic answers to complex issues? Executive decision-making is the opposite of what candidates are being asked to do in these debates. The formulation and implementation of policy as well as responses to crises, both foreign and domestic, require vast amounts of information, rational and methodical thinking, seeking advice from staff and other branches of government, exploring various options as well as alternatives to those options, building coalitions, and most important, open-mindedness and the absence of ideological constraints when confronting serious questions. And what about those public speeches presidents are required to deliver to persuade the nation to support their policies? These are not “off the cuff” remarks; instead they are carefully drafted and reviewed by a team of writers. This process takes time and consideration. And yet, the news media and the voters declare winners and losers on the basis of opposite conditions that likely could worsen crises or confuse the public and foreign governments.
Now, you be the judge.
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