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.