Viewpoint

Millennials call presidential debates useless ‘verbal warfare’

As I watched Governor John Kasich of Ohio at Wednesday’s GOP debate trying desperately to come off as the standard bearer of sanity, I thought of a stunning political moment I’d witnessed a few weeks earlier.

It took place at a focus group at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, with a group of politically active college students from around the country. Moderator John Della Volpe asked them to talk about candidates they favored. Mikayla Bodey told the kind of story every politician dreams about.

She had met Hillary Clinton at a “women for Clinton” event. She had looked the candidate in the eye, shaken her hand. And when Clinton told her, “We are going to do this together,” Bodey had cried.

Yet, she said, she’s still undecided. She likes Kasich, too.

A room of onlookers was floored by this; Clinton and Kasich represent two different ideologies. And, as far as Clinton goes – what does the woman have to do to seal the deal?

But really, Bodey’s ambivalence suggests a bipartisan hope that’s nearly absent from the current political conversation. As she told me afterward, she’s torn between Clinton’s message and Kasich’s record. She doesn’t buy the need to commit, at this point, to one side.

This is partly a millennial thing, but it’s also a broad theme in a year marked by frustration among voters of all ages. Early on, Donald Trump tapped into the sense that both parties are problems; unfortunately, his crudeness has set the tone for every Republican candidate debate. On Wednesday, Kasich was so desperate to register as the reasonable one that he came off as mildly unhinged. Chris Christie yelled about fantasy football. Cruz gave a boilerplate rant about the media.

Maybe this explains how Ben Carson can fare well while perpetually looking like he just woke up from a nap: All of this yelling turns some people on, but it’s fair to say it turns more people off. Even people who are inclined to be engaged. As Della Volpe told me after the Harvard event, these students were cynical because they weren’t getting what they wanted from the process: “They’re looking for a serious conversation that does not appear to be happening in social media or a debate so far.”

I talked that day to a Vanderbilt University student named Rachel King, a Carly Fiorina fan who lamented that politics had become a “vitriolic game of verbal warfare.” Never mind that Fiorina’s chief credential is her ability to play that game. King still said she wants something different: “Let’s start where we agree. Let’s not start where we disagree. I think bipartisanship is essential.”

I can only imagine what she thought of Wednesday’s debate, in which the CNBC moderators nearly lost control of the asylum. To be fair, the event wasn’t entirely substance free.

But it’s hard, in a 10-candidate format, to deliver anything near what casual voters want. These debates have moments of high entertainment, but as tools for engagement, they’ve run their course.

Joanna Weiss writes for the Boston Globe.

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