Against Debates

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The closing days of the midterm campaign have brought us a plethora of debates between the candidates. And as is so often the case, these late-hour showdowns seem to all sound and fury but produce almost nothing useful for a confused voter. In fact, they mostly contribute to the relentless silliness of our campaigns and the impulse people may have to tune it our or view it as a lowbrow circus.

Consider some highlights from recent debates. Alex Sink has been on the defensive after a text-message tip she may or may not have improperly read during a makeup check; never mind that her opponent’s health care company paid $1.7 billion to settle Medicare and Medicaid billing fraud charges–suddenly Sink’s the supposedly unethical one. The big story from a recent Kentucky Senate debate was that Rand Paul refused to shake Jack Conway’s hand out of anger over Conway’s infamous “Aqua Buddha” campaign ad. When Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon debated in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, they spent the evening trashing one another’s character in ways completely familiar to anyone who’d seen their zillions of television advertisements. And in a California Governor’s debate this week, the key soundbite was produced when moderator Matt Lauer played the role of pious snob (in Josh Green’s words) and asked the candidates if they would disavow negative advertising for the campaign home stretch,

Yes, amid these highlights there was talk of Yucca Mountain and Medicare reimbursements and the stimulus and health care. But precious few voters actually sit through these debates, which–let’s be honest–are typically deadly dull fare even for political junkies. And what the non-junkies get are the meaningless gaffes, gotcha moments, and, to quote Green again “the Olympian self-regard” of moderators who have the luxury of floating judiciously above the fray.

It’s a rare debate that tells us something revealing about a candidate. In theory, that shouldn’t be so. Watching politicians¬† think on their feet is a great way to evaluate them. But not many debate questioners are able to make that happen–or, critically, to follow up after the inevitable canned answer. And canned they are. When candidates spend long hours in “debate prep,” they’re often like college students cramming for an exam in a class they usually skip, stuffing their brains with index-card facts and quotable shots at their opponent. (Do you think Meg Whitman improvised her line that putting Jerry Brown in charge of state pensions would be like “putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank“?) The people who benefit most from debates, really, are the media outlets that insist on asserting their authority over the campaign–and what candidate wants to anger the local newspaper or television station by refusing to appear.

All these elements reached the peak of absurdity during the twenty-six debates of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. In retrospect, the two moments that stand out the most told us almost nothing about the candidates. Hillary Clinton waffled about her view of allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses, a tangential issue and one which, it emerged, Obama didn’t have a very clear position on either. And then there was Obama’s famous pledge that he would meet with the leaders of hostile nations like Iran and Cuba without preconditions, which touched off endless commentary about how his foreign policy would be dramatically different from Hillary Clinton’s, but which in fact was misguided. (And needless to say Obama has done no such thing.)

So what’s the alternative? Are debates worse than nothing? Probably not–particularly at a moment when candidates seem increasingly determined to dodge the media. The best idea I’ve seen involves forcing the candidates to actually debate one another, rather than field one often-unrelated question after another from a panel or moderator, which turns a debate into an extended press conference, but with higher gaffe potential. Make political debates something closer to the debates real people have over dinner tables. And instead of having journalists play the role of pious snobs, have them sit by the stage with their laptops, using Google and emailing with pre-enlisted experts to fact check the candidates in real time, and interject periodically with corrections or challenges to the spin and distortions.

Ordinary people might even find that entertaining to watch.