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Why I Dislike Our Style of Presidential Debate

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We have had, so far, 16 debates during the 2012 presidential race. I would like to call them, instead of debates, question-and-answer meetings, arguments, character assassinations, popularity contests, pure rhetoric, or in the case of the last event this past Saturday a mutual congratulatory session. None of them have been debates in the classic sense; a single topic with opening statements and rebuttals. These seem more like political advertisements; considering that most of the candidates have experience with formal debates, this is disturbing. Maybe this is more the fault of the debate hosts in not structuring them appropriately.

While I appreciate the chance to see the candidates side-by-side, answering the same questions (although sometimes they answer something completely different), I would like to see a more formal debate with specific and limited topics, time constraints, and a more rigid scoring. As it presently stands, the “slickest” speaker, or the last to speak, frequently is seen as the “winner” of the debate or that particular question.

In the September 22nd debate there was some attempt to limit time, and I like that questions were taken from all over the country, but this high number of questions on a variety of topics make it difficult to assess the candidate’s grasp of the topic. This was another example of this just being a question-and-answer session – there was no rebuttal. The first question, on stimulating small business, is a very important issue, but it was only asked of Perry and Romney, and Mitt immediately shifted his answers to some other stump that he wanted to speak on, what I would call wandering afield.

There also seems to be too much time spent describing what is wrong with the current administration, like Bachmann did with her first question, and whether or not you agree with Obama on how he runs the country (such that the president runs anything), the point of these debates is to see how the candidates will address certain issues. In my opinion, complaining about what is wrong is not constructive.

The October 18th debate tried to follow some of the rules (limited time and rebuttals), but again had so many questions that all of the candidates could not answer all of the questions. In the first question, on taxes, it turned into a “what is wrong with Cain’s plan” attack, not an answer to what each candidate would or will do. While I would have liked a thorough analysis of tax plans, not that Cain’s plan had much of a chance (and now neither does he), there was not enough time spent on this specific topic to understand what each candidate thinks would work, or what they propose.

All in all, I would rather hear specific plans on how to address each issue from each candidate – if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.

If you missed any of the debates you can find them all here.

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About One Americans Rant

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    I like the public-forum type of debate myself, in which candidates answer questions from voters. That way, although obviously they will (if they’re at all competent) have prepared their general talking points beforehand, they have to address real things that people are concerned about, not just “the issues” as determined by the media.

    You’re right that the GOP debates have become little more than a popularity contest/shouting match/backslapping session, depending on the wildly variant format used. They also, for me, remove the candidates from actually engaging with the people they hope will eventually elect them.

    In the UK, where I originally come from, debate in the media is an ongoing process, not just a “parade ring” where voters can assess the runners and riders before the big race. We have, of course, the weekend morning talk shows, just like Meet the Press and their ilk here. But there are also weekly public debate shows on national primetime TV and radio, moderated by an experienced and respected political journalist, on which a panel of prominent politicians (and other public figures) answer questions directly put to them by audience members. That way, they not only have to answer a “real” question – they have to look the person who asked it in the eye while they answer!

    And, as I said, this is an ongoing, weekly process, not just something that happens at election time. It keeps politicians on their toes (whereas in the US they seem to spend most their time fundraising instead of representing) and constantly engaged with the people.

    We tried US-style “presidential” debates between the party leaders at the last election, and while they made for good TV they were unconvincing – and we ended up with a hung parliament!

  • Baronius

    “Parade ring” is a very good way of putting it. But even though our current system isn’t ideal, it does provide an opportunity to assess them. OAR says that he doesn’t like the emphasis on style and would rather see candidates address the actual questions – fine, judge them on that. A style-judger would judge the candidates on style even in a formal format.

    And that’s the underlying problem. OAR’s real objection concerns the way other people make decisions. Me, I wouldn’t care if the candidates had a spitting contest onstage, as long as I’ve got access to their policy positions online. That’s my approach. Others have different approaches. I think mine’s the best, but so does everyone else. The real question is whether the current system prevents people from having access to the information they’d prefer to use to make a choice, and I don’t think it does.

  • http://oneamericansrant.blogspot.com/ One American’s Rant

    Baronius,

    First of all, why can’t we have ideal? I don’t question the merit of having debates – I do think that there is some usefulness in having all of the candidates on stage, all together. I have been researching their policy positions online, and have run into the same problem I have with the debate; no single reporter, blogger, or pundit asks the same questions of every candidate. What I have ended up with is a mish-mash of half-answered questions and no real good feeling of what each candidate is proposing – it is all too wrapped up in rhetoric and opponent bashing. If I ever come to any conclusions, I will post them.

  • John Lake

    I might in addition to OAR’s observations, express my disdain for some media outlets which arbitrarily determine which discussions are “the most important of the debate.” While the $10,000 proposed wager between Mitt and Newt won their first prize, neither the discussion about Israel/Pakistan, nor the allusion to $millions that came into the possession of Newt Gingrich rated much mention. Just when I was thinking to myself how lucky we are with our objective, impartial media, this has to happen.

  • Baronius

    Why can’t we have ideal? Because ideal+gimmick will always do a little better than ideal. And who’s to say that any of our ideal scenarios would match? I thought that Fred Thompson ran an ideal campaign in 2008.

  • http://oneamericansrant.blogspot.com/ One American’s Rant

    This is the problem with the candidate’s policy position statements and how they are reported on by the media, by analogy.

    Moderator: “The first question I would like to ask, concerns all Americans and has been noted as one of the top polling topics during the last week, ‘Is fruit healthy’?”

    Candidate A: “I think that the American people like yellow fruit the most, so as president I will ensure that yellow fruit is always available. My distinguished opponent has insisted that polls show a favor towards red fruit, which is clearly a lie. My staff has compiled several reports linking red fruit to immoral actions, and I will not stop until red fruit is no longer a threat.”

    Candidates B: “Since time immemorial, this great nation has relied on fruit as a part of their daily diet. Those liberal bastards have claimed that ‘we the people’ are entitled to choose whether to eat fruit or not, and not have fruit thrust upon us. I say now, that if elected, I will not sleep until this fruit issue is resolved.”

    Candidate C: “I have been aware of this fruit issue for years. I recently signed a pledge stating that fruit is only to be eaten by a man and woman, and I hope that eventually the whole country will sign this pledge as well. As Governor, I enacted many state laws with regard to fruit, and I believe that as president, I can move those laws into the federal arena.”

    Candidate D: “I think that by raising taxes on fruit we will be able to fund further research into fruit as a whole, and eventually resolve this issue. My opponents think that by lowering taxes, somehow this fruit issue will just go away. It will never go away while I am in office, of that I can assure you.”

    Moderator: “Thank you, sirs and madam, that was very informative and I believe answers that question completely. Now, moving to the next question…”

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    With both the manifesto (policy document) and the debate, a candidate can choose to present himself/herself any way he/she wants to be seen.

    The value of the debate is that it provides an opportunity to assess character, something that is difficult to do from a website or a printed brochure. However well a candidate is coached, however smooth the presentation, there will be some subtle things that cannot or that fail to be concealed, and which give a wealth of information to an astute observer.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    One might argue that JFK prevailed over Nixon not by virtue of ideas but TV performance. Nixon froze, was perspiring all throughout, while JFK kept on pluggin’.

  • Igor

    I haven’t seen any of the debates, probably they are on the commercial networks, to which I seldom pay attention. I don’t think I’ve missed anything. Aren’t the commercial networks just devoted to selling things? Therefore, one would think, they would curry sensationalism in order to attract the eyes that they sell to advertisers.

    I have, infrequently, turned on a network news program and I am simply appalled at them. They are shallow and timid. In a word, useless. They ALWAYS talk about the horserace and never the issues.

    IMO the licenses of all the commercial TV stations should be revoked because they all fail to meet the first rule of the FCC charter and serve the public interest.

    These flavorless debates are simply the latest manifestation of the utter failure of our communications systems to perform their basic duties.

    We need information and serious discussion, not simply varying flavors of the same propaganda (interspersed with assertive appeals to waste our money on sugar water).

  • Baronius

    I find myself caring less and less about each individual candidate’s position on fruit. He’s going to have very little say over fruit when he gets into office, probably just appointing a fruit czar and signing or vetoing major legislation. Candidate A’s fruit advisor could have just as easily ended up working for Candidate B, and may end up in President C’s administration.

    I’m more interested in a candidate’s broad thinking about the issue, especially as reflected in his track record. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become so obsessive about candidates’ experience.

  • http://oneamericansrant.blogspot.com/ One American’s Rant

    Baronius,

    I see your point about experience and do consider it important, but your’s must be a minority opinion, since it seems like more and more time is spent on what each candidate will do about X.

    [RHETORICAL]
    If it was simply a matter of the president just appointing another czar, why are the things in question (jobs, economy, healthcare) not already fixed?
    [/RHETORICAL]

  • John Lake

    Here’s a related note. For those who vote according to the candidate’s personality, Jon Huntsman often comes up stiff and boring. Yet he is far more well informed than most of the others, played in a rock band, rides a motorcycle, has three ‘Charlies Angels’ daughters, and when in China, he ventures into the streets and byways to meet the folks, and discuss their issues.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Too bad he doesn’t move. Think Ivan the Terrible or Catherine the Great.

    Swearing allegiance to someone is not a matter of the mind but of the heart.

  • http://oneamericansrant.blogspot.com/ One American’s Rant

    I actually like Huntsman more than most of the candidates. Definitely high on the lesser of evils list.