“An Incompatible Combination”

"An Incompatible Combination"

I’ve watched every presidential debate thus far in the Republican primary.  And I’ve done more than my fair share of laughing, weeping, and sometimes just staring blankly at the television screen. 

In a way, these debates are the best reality show on TV.  Everyone involved in this circus is deadly serious about it and a clear prize awaits the winner.  But beyond the entertainment value there’s nothing else there.  Even worse, because something serious like national politics is being mixed with something completely unserious like primetime entertainment, there’s always the danger that people will confuse the two and give undue weight to what should normally be perceived as pure spectacle.

Andrew Sullivan argues in favor of these televised dysfunctions:

“I have to say that, regardless of their limitations, exposing these candidates to hours of questioning does help inform us about who they are in an as uncontrolled a setting as we can imagine. It was the only time when we got to see Sarah Palin without a protective filter. Perry’s awful performances have also helped reveal the dumb-as-a-post, lazier-than-thou bullshit that can work for a crony-ridden Texas governor, but not on a national level. Yes, I know they can be excruciating at times. But they help show human beings in a few precious moments off-script. Their emotional temperament comes across. And that matters.”

It would be hard to defend the position that a candidate’s stage performance is completely irrelevant.  After all, a lot of the presidency is about how one appears publicly, both in domestic and foreign settings.  But placing so much emphasis on televised debates, of which there have already been several, sometimes only weeks apart, where often the same questions are asked, and nearly the same answers are given, begs the question: isn’t there a better way to spend time evaluating candidates? 

Jon Meacham agrees more or less with Sullivan:

“Plutarch understood this; he once wrote that we could learn more from a leader’s offhand remark or a small personal moment than we could from all the great histories of all the great battles. That remains true now, I think: presidential debates, both in primaries and in general elections, have proved fairly reliable indicators of how presidents go on to perform the duties of their office.”

But what both Meacham and Sullivan fail to see is that televised debates are not “off-script” moments and do not include “offhand” remarks.  And that’s precisely because they are televised.  These debates are huge productions with carefully designed sets, embarrassingly trite musical themes, and ridiculous formats.  The point of these freak show exhibitions isn’t to reflect on political philosophy or one’s “vision” for the country, but to “Look presidential!” 

It’s all about appearances.   The appearance of strength, the appearance of wisdom, the appearance of cogent policy thinking.  The appearance even, of being off-handed and off-script.  But appearances are distractions.  And people’s obsession with them show’s just how much television has warped our sense of what’s important and what counts as true.  No one bothers to fact-check the candidates during debates or even afterward in a post-game follow-up, because no one really cares.

Today’s debates like trivia rather than big issues,” which shouldn’t be a surprise since most news networks who host them have that preference as well.  H.W. Brands makes a crucial point:

“In fact the debates have probably diminished voters’ chances of choosing an effective president. Debates reward candidates for one-line zingers rather than thoughtful responses, and they condition voters to expect slogans for solutions to complex problems. Intra-party slugfests like the Republican series drive discussions to the extremes, making more difficult the inter-party compromises that will be necessary to get the economy moving and the deficit under control.”

Compromise makes for boring television.  “Slugfests,” on the other hand, are highly entertaining, especially once they can be chopped up and taken out of context for viewing as 60 second clips on the next day’s morning shows.  So we value sharp rebuttals and “one-linezingers” over thoughtful synthesis and charitable discourse.  Never mind that Ron Paul has several valid and cutting critiques of the War on Drugs, foreign intervention, and the degradation of civil liberties, he’s old looking and shakes kind of like a muppet and can’t get his arguments across in concise little 30 second responses.  And if television teaches us anything it’s that someone who can’t give a simple answer to a complex problem is probably radical and crazy.  If they look the part, even better. 

It should be depressing enough that when people ask who won the debate, so few even bother to go through who proposed what policies and whether or not they might work.  Instead, we decide that so and so won because they went the longest without saying something dumb or making a weird face.

Now this really isn’t a critique of television debates.  Like I said, I never miss them.  This is a more general criticism of all the people who voluntarily lend weight and credence to these melodramatic proceedings.  Do the debates matter?  Yes.  But only because so many people already think they do.  And that’s the problem.  That so many experienced and intelligent people still dignify them with semi-serious analysis, as if one’s ability to answer questions which form the premise of entire books, in less than 2 minutes, and while looking confident and reassuring, is at all relevant to being president, is profoundly disturbing. 

Here’s Conor Friedersdorf:

“This announcement is an admission that the Texas governor doesn’t even expect he can improve over time. Of course, it isn’t actually essential that a president be a good debater, but it is essential that he has a deep grasp of numerous issues, is a quick study, and can use the bully pulpit to good effect. As it happens, these are the very things at which Perry is failing miserably. Would you send him to meet with world leaders? To address the press corps of foreign nations on trips? To quickly understand the issues at play in a complex and unexpected crisis? To do Town Hall meetings where he persuades the American people to rally behind his policy initiatives? The guy isn’t even quick enough on his feet to get off a one liner about Mitt Romney’s tendency to flip flop. How would he handle a matter for which he wasn’t prepared?”

The implicit assumption here is that one’s ability to “get off a one liner” is some how related to his ability to negotiate effectively with world leaders.  Will he be calling them names?  I don’t get it.  Nor does one’s ability to “quickly understand the issues at play in a complex and unexpected crisis” have any obvious connection with one’s ability to deliver effective sound bites or memorable policy panders. 

I’m not claiming that Rick Perry is prepared to be President of the United States.  But it’s distressing that so many respectable people keep pointing to Perry’s unsuccessful primetime debut as if to say, “hey, if he can’t utter a bunch of boilerplate nonsense in front of Cooper & Co., how will he know what to do about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons?!”  If only there were less attack-ads and more of John King asking Herman Cain what kind of pizza he prefers.  If only the candidates’ speeches could be reduced to 90 second segments like the one where Rick Santorum degraded a service man for being gay.  If only, if only.

 

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31 thoughts on ““An Incompatible Combination”

  1. Obama’s one liner to Venezuela’s prime minister’s harague was priceless: “It was three hours long.” (I may have the time wrong. but it says exactly the right thing).

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  2. “And if television teaches us anything it’s that someone who can’t give a simple answer to a complex problem is probably radical and crazy. If they look the part, even better.”

    If there ever is to be any hope for democracy as a long term viable system of small-p progressive governance, this lesson needs to be unlearned. Indeed, people need to vociferously reject it as absurd.

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  3. “Even worse, because something serious like national politics is being mixed with something completely unserious like primetime entertainment, there’s always the danger that people will confuse the two and give undue weight to what should normally be perceived as pure spectacle.”

    Well, yeah. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Neil Postman wrote about it years ago. It’s only gotten worse since then, of course. In the GOP, sloganeering and “looking presidential” has entirely displaced rational argumentation.

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    • My critique is partly a response to re-reading Postman’s work of late.

      What I can’t wrap my mind around is why no one cares anymore. Perhaps the waters were muddied by one too many electrical luddites screaming about TV destroying culture, but it’s a shame that the ramifications of this whole project, which reaches its zenith with Fox New’s info-tainment, is seen and objected to just as much everwhere else on cable/network TV.

      C-SPAN just as much a culprint, but few people probably see it that way.

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      • Yeah, I was gonna ask if you’d read Postman.

        Actually, I was going to first ask if your argument is that the medium is the message, but Postman was a student of McLuhan- he was just more direct in his critique of the media. It’s easy to mistake McLuhan for a devotee of the media, but he wasn’t. He was an old Catholic book learning man and, correctly, saw the electronic media as his enemy.

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      • What I can’t wrap my mind around is why no one cares anymore.

        Well, because an entire generation-plus of people have been raised with the background, unexamined, corrosive view that the method of discourse on TV is the necessary & proper way to view politics.

        When Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, the GOP still had folks like Brent Scowcroft, Bob Dole, George Bush Sr., and Jack Kemp in their ranks– folks whose ideas could be criticized as mistaken or even poorly conceived, but they were ideas. There’s no one anywhere in the Republican Party who evinces any interest in policy– it’s all about crafting slogans to look good on TV, to the extent it’s about policy at all. I think that George Bush Jr. may well have viewed his dad as a wimp because Newsweek said so– even though Bush Sr. was, in reality, a war hero.

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      • I think it comes back to the rational irrationality I discussed in a previous post. At the end of the day no one person has any reason to care if they’re getting good information because one vote doesn’t make a difference.

        If true, we have a classic collective action problem though I’m not sure what the solution would be. It’s not like most candidates would be that interested in substantive debates, and I doubt most voters would be either.

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    • BHO’s only qualification was “looking presidential.” Act as if.

      The debates are about nothing more, and that’s OK. On paper, Rick Perry is what the GOP really wants; in reality, he’s just too clumsy and creepy.

      In fact, I think Al Gore blew a gimme by acting unpresidential vs. Dubya, stalking him around the stage. He was clumsy and creepy. Which rather fits John Kerry, too, come to think of it. Dubya was the worst candidate in generations, except for the ones he beat.

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      • BHO’s only qualification was “looking presidential.”

        That is false.

        See, e.g., http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2008/02/obama-actually.html

        I follow some issues pretty closely, and over and over again, Barack Obama kept popping up, doing really good substantive things. There he was, working for nuclear non-proliferation and securing loose stockpiles of conventional weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles. There he was again, passing what the Washington Post called “the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet” — though not as strong as Obama would have liked. Look — he’s over there, passing a bill that created a searchable database of recipients of federal contracts and grants, proposing legislation on avian flu back when most people hadn’t even heard of it, working to make sure that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were screened for traumatic brain injury and to prevent homelessness among veterans, successfully fighting a proposal by the VA to reexamine all PTSD cases in which full benefits had been awarded, working to ban no-bid contracts in Katrina reconstruction, and introducing legislation to criminalize deceptive political tactics and voter intimidation. And there he was again, introducing a tech plan …

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      • I was about to say something similar.

        “Look good,” is exactly the problem. Who cares how they look?

        And of course, with radio debates, you pay a LOT more attention to what they’re saying than how they appear.

        A conversational debate broadcast on the radio would probably be the best at extending the material to a mass audience without rendering it completely useless in the process.

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            • W/no TV, Nixon would have probably have been president in 1960, sez Salon. If you’re OK with that. Just checking.

              Me, I have no problem with looks and comportment being part of the equation. Little known factoid: GWashington had his uniforms tailored. There are many accounts of admiration at the striking leadership figure he cut.

              Because in the end, it’s not as much about wonkage or ideology as about the ability to lead—that is, get people to follow. Old Muttonhead was pretty awful tactically, and lost more battles than he won. Washington’s greatest accomplishment was keeping the army together long enough to outlast the British will.

              It’s easy to underestimate that. I think Obama’s a unique failure in that he has the trappings to lead, but a combination of ideology, intransigence and incompetence are too much to overcome. And I’ve re-examined the Carter record and find it not nearly as bad as common knowledge holds it to be, but the guy simply couldn’t lead.

              We are human beings afterall, a combination of mind and spirit, and we need our leaders to have visceral leadership qualities: it’s just not about book cleverness, it’s the Adlai Stevenson thing. Whether or not it should be that way, we must take human nature as we find it, hence my take here. A mush-mouthed, fat, dumpy bald dude just ain’t gonna swing it, all things being equal—and with what we’ve been trotting out for candidates, if there’s one great equalizer among them, it’s their mediocrity.

              I also think glibness–finding the right thing to say, whether it’s a witticism or a gentle Reaganesque putdown–is an indication of confidence, intelligence and good sense, the most important qualities for a leader, besides that visceral je ne sais quoi of a Washington, JFK, or that silver-tongued devil Bill Clinton.

              The funny thing is, in 2012, we might have an even match on all these things, and the content will actually be the thing that matters. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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  4. What it boils down to me is that more information is better than less. Having debates provides more information (of various sorts) than not so I consider the debates useful even if only for the occasional unscripted moments or the subtext and body language of the debaters.

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  5. I’d love it if these were actually unscripted debates. Each candidate asks questions of the other. Moderator only there to ring the buzzer on speechifying in the form of a question and to regulate time limits. *Then* you’d actually know what these hair balls are made of.

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    • That would be tough to do with so many candidates at once, but since we’ve already borrowing from sports, why not a round-robin: two candidates, no moderator, one hour. Host two two-hour sessions a week and you can get every pair in two months (call it the 2-2-2 plan). Of course, without moderators there’s a risk that ideas outside the party dogma wouldn’t be addressed at all; but maybe that’s okay for a primary.

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  6. No one bothers to fact-check the candidates during debates or even afterward in a post-game follow-up, because no one really cares.

    I suggest Politifact. Also, I recall Anderson Cooper – probably the night after – doing some post-debate fact-checking. Including correcting a mistake he made, regarding the 47% who don’t pay federal income tax, he had said in the debate pay no tax. I can’t vouch for the other debate hosts.

    Like North, I think more information is preferable to less information. The public will use information as it will. Some will look deeper into issues, using the debate as a jumping off point to visit campaign websites and such, while others will judge haircuts, and whether or no the prospective president would be good to have beers with. Such is democracy.

    Also, (at 2:26) C-span is the culprit for what now?

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  7. We’re actually just about to enter the election campaign proper in New Zealand. There will be a few debates (there will probably be 2-3 with the PM vs. the leader of the opposition, and then 1-2 with the minor party leaders.

    Oh well, at least we only have to put up with it for 4 weeks.

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