As the first of three scheduled presidential debates approaches, we’re about to go through what’s become a quadrennial misconception about how to choose our president: that debates are an especially valuable way of helping the voters make that fateful decision.
Given the tremendous emphasis the media place on this contest, an hour-and-a half-long question-and-answer session supplants months, if not years, of presenting oneself to the public. This year, the buildup of the debates has exploded beyond reason. For whatever reason, the media have decided the first of this year’s three planned debates will be the decisive one. (Trump, as is his wont, has introduced some uncertainty into whether he’ll participate in all three.) And let’s face it: A great deal of this excited anticipation arises from the expectation that Trump will put on a good show.
The debates test qualities that have virtually nothing to do with governing. Governing requires thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience, the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy. Consider the qualities that enabled John F. Kennedy to prevent the discovery that the Soviets had stationed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba from escalating into a calamity. During that showdown, Kennedy definitely didn’t utilize his considerable wit and he avoided publicly humiliating Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet employing wit and one-upping an opponent are the two qualities most prized in debates.
Worst of all, the supposedly most important thing in a debate is a candidate delivering an effective one-liner. Now, we all know, or should know, the one-liner has most likely been proposed by the candidate’s advisers and that it’s been rehearsed. It has nothing to do with governing. It’s nice if a president is clever, but that’s not required. In fact, verbal cleverness has been a rare presidential commodity.
Yet the night usually goes to the deliverer of the best one-liner. It’s what’s most anticipated and most remembered. Actually, the first televised presidential debates, between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were nearly devoid of one-liners. Now they’re the be-all and end-all of the encounter. What a weird way to decide who should be president.
Probably the most famous one-liner in modern debates was challenger Ronald Reagan’s saying to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, “There you go again.” Carter was raising real issues. No matter – that one sentence blew any discussion of those issues away. Reagan also scored the runner-up: his attempt, on seeking reelection in 1984, to dispatch questions about his mental acuity after one of Reagan’s responses during the previous debate wandered down the Pacific highway. Reagan said of his nearly two-decade-younger challenger, former vice president Walter Mondale, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale, stricken with the knowledge that Reagan had landed a decisive blow, managed to force a laugh. The line wasn’t especially clever, but the former actor was able to deliver it well enough to quell questions about his capacity to serve four more years.
Then there’s the media’s determination to declare a “winner.” Since these aren’t real debates, there’s no way to score them. I’ve participated in two debates, and when asked afterward who I thought had “won,” I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t and still don’t see these events as something someone “wins” but at best as a way for the voters to see finalists side by side and decide which one they prefer. But familiarity with the candidates isn’t something we’re lacking this year. To hand the evening – and the presidency – to whomever “won” a non-debate makes a mockery of our democratic system and the gravity of the choice the voters face.
Elizabeth Drew is an author and political journalist.