A matter of debate
While the medium affords only so much, presidential debates could use some improvements
On Wednesday night, a pack of my dorm-mates crowded around the television in the first floor lounge. One would expect such a crowd watching the inevitable tragedy of a Cavalier football game, but instead on the screen there were two gentlemen in nice suits, each one serenading the American people in hopes of becoming the next leader of the free world.
If you had any interest in politics at all, no matter whether you were for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama, you were watching along like the rest of us on Wednesday night. Ever since John Kennedy and Richard Nixon duked it out in 1960, televised presidential debates have been a mainstay in modern U.S. politics. They have functioned mostly as a way for the electorate to see past candidates’ resumes and campaign platforms — their “numbers” — in order to see the men (and hopefully in the future, women) in living color. John Kennedy’s youthful and vigorous stage presence helped convince 60 million viewers that he was the right man for the job, instead of the sickly Nixon.
I think the presidential debates are in theory a great organ of democracy, but there are certain aspects of their execution that I would change. My main gripe about them is their vacuous nature: A candidate doesn’t win debates with substance, a candidate wins debates with style. Although you can argue that I can’t really give that criticism about debates because that’s exactly their function — if a voter wants more substantive material, he or she should read candidate platforms — style should reflect substance, not obscure it. The most memorable quote of last Wednesday’s debate for me is perhaps Romney’s reply to Obama about Romney’s proposed tax plan: “There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong… There are all these studies out there. But let’s get at the bottom line.” Never at any other moment in my life had I wanted to shout at the television more. What exactly are these studies you are citing? In my mind, the right course of action would have been this: Romney and Obama staffers provide the names of the studies their bosses cited, and fact-checkers would then see if the candidates speak truth or if their pants are on fire. Jim Lehrer, the moderator, would have at least asked for verification of these studies instead of being the resident doormat.
But that, of course, is pure fantasy. Instead, these mysterious studies were never revealed and the candidates were never challenged. What irks me most is that Romney insisted that these studies are actually not important, and he would rather get to the “bottom line.” What does that even mean? An academic study of your tax plan is the bottom line; what you say about your tax plan during the debate is demagoguery. This is not an attack on Romney — such discourse is inherent in the format of the medium. Would it make for good debate material for Romney to tell voters to read the studies that show how great his tax plan is? Absolutely not. No matter how enlightened you think — or would like to think — the American public is, we are a culture of easy consumption: Give us a good soundbite and we’ll listen; lecture us or give us reading assignments, and we’ll flip the channel.
The presidential debate is the great pageant of American politics, yes, but just like we want our beauty queens to look attractive in swimsuits and to articulate their vision for world peace in a coherent manner, we want our candidates to display confident leadership and have good reasons to back it up. I call for more stringent fact-checking of what the candidates say. Sure, we should respect the candidates, but I think it is a travesty that they are not held to the same academic standard as a sixth grader writing an essay.
Also, give the moderator some teeth. Jim Lehrer should have had a big red button to turn off Romney and Obama’s microphones so they wouldn’t be able to interrupt him so much. Finally, though this is only pertinent to this year’s debates, do not give out the debate topics to the candidates in advance. We should not really care if that makes it harder for the candidates to prepare; we want to see them squirm anyway, not give canned answers and soundbite-ready one-liners. After all, they are only vying for the most powerful job in the world — we wouldn’t want the application process to be on the lax side, would we?
Rolph Recto is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.