September 1, 2007

A Meaningless Quiz Show With No Prizes

Earlier today, I noted Fred Thompson's sponsorship of the Fox broadcast of the next Republican debate, and called it a "shrewd move", which resulted in some, ahem, mixed reviews from CQ readers. It occurred to me that I hadn't explained why I found Thompson's tweak of the debate such a sound move, or at least not in quite a while.

Put simply, presidential debates are disasters waiting to happen to candidates. Good things almost never happen at them, and the format is calculated to play gotcha games with candidates in both parties. It forces a "lightning round" mentality onto complex policy issues that rewards simpletons and punishes the thoughtful.

What candidate in his or her right mind would want to participate in that exercise?

As an example of this, I've spent my afternoon racking my brain trying to find one debate appearance for any Republican candidate that actually resulted in a net positive with any lasting impact on the race. The closest I came was Rudy Giuliani's smackdown of Ron Paul, which bolstered him after a serious bobble on abortion at the previous debate. Whether that had "lasting" impact is seriously debatable. The abortion bobble, however, sticks with him to this day. Otherwise, the only debate moments that have stuck to candidates on the trail have been all bad, and I'd argue the same for the Democrats.

Debates used to have some purpose, although they have never been used as much as this cycle. Televised debates allowed voters to get a sense of the candidates that they could not glean from news coverage, especially the vast majority of voters who could not attend campaign events and therefore had no way to experience the candidate. That's hardly true any more; voters who care can find all sorts of YouTube videos and other multimedia presentations on campaign websites.

We don't need to see the chorus line of candidates every two weeks, asked the same questions and delivering the same 60-second responses. It's superfluous. No one watches these debates who don't already have access to much more detailed and intelligent policy positions from these candidates.

In fact, the only purpose served by these debates is to toss chum out to political pundits, journalists, and broadcasters. They neither inform nor edify, and do far more damage than good to the quality of campaign discourse. The formats themselves push candidates into attacking each other rather than actually debating policy and philosophy, an approach that amplifies division rather than attempting to make convincing arguments based on facts.

Anyone who tweaks the current debate mentality shows at least some independent thought. Unfortunately, we are almost certain to see these unwieldy game shows multiply even further -- a new reality game show in which we vote people off the island all at once, and far too long after the show should have been cancelled.


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Captain Ed, this morning: Earlier today, I noted Fred Thompson’s sponsorship of the Fox broadcast of the next Republican debate, and called it a “shrewd move”, which resulted in some, ahem, mixed reviews from CQ readers. It occurred t... [Read More]

Comments (25)

Posted by unclesmrgol | September 1, 2007 11:31 PM

Can't have it both ways. Either the debates require snap statements from the candidates which can come back to haunt, or they are canned, in the sense that the candidates know the questions beforehand and have researched the best possible answer.

Posted by Ken Oglesby | September 1, 2007 11:35 PM

I agree.
Do away with the debates.
When President Bush was running for Governor of Texas I was a police officer in a small Texas town and who should show up one day but candidate Bush,shaking hands,agreeing our job was tougher than the one he wanted and generally making everyone feel that we were part of the team.
THAT impressed me more than all the promises any politician could ever make.
He got my vote for Governor twice based on that one 30 minute session and for President twice because I felt he was the best person for the job.
Instead of debates,let the candidates spend their time going from town to town,ACTUALLY meeting the people who they want to vote for them and not just using them for photo-ops and sound bites.
Should that ever happen,I might be less cynical about politics and politicians.
But until then,do away with the debates.

Posted by KJBtruth | September 1, 2007 11:48 PM

Captain Ed,

I agree with you. Fred has run an outside the mainstream non-candidacy so far, and this type of move shows it.

For example, announcing his ANNOUNCEMENT on MSM is interesting in that he is forcing the MSM to come to HIM on his website for the actual announcement, which is the following day on the 7th.

Fred will not grovel to the media, nor the party hacks in New Hampshire.

Ed is 100% correct in his assertion that these early debates are simply traps for the top tier candidates. If the early states are bound and determined to force the nomination process earlier and earlier, than we need to have a corresponding early reduction of non competitive candidates.

As a person who grew up in Tennessee (proud grad of ETSU) I can say that Fred is loved in the South, not for Law and Order, but for his work as an attorney and Federal prosecutor. He brought down the amazingly corrupt Blanton administration, among other things including Watergate.

Fred Thompson can solidify the base for the GOP.

As you were.


Posted by Carol Herman | September 2, 2007 12:01 AM

All politicians need exposure.

And, I'm still reminded of that one New Hampshire debate, so long ago. 1980. Where Ronald Reagan actually paid for all the microphones; and then the elder Bush tried to limit attendance.

Reagan was wonderful. "He paid for those microphones."

I'm reminded, too, about the Net. And, the one skill I don't have. The quick jabbing sentence, that gets other to spit all over their monitors. And, needs to come with warnings about beverages, nearby.

Other than that? So what.

All candidates for public office get up each and every day, to go out and shake hands with strangers. They develop habits that make it look as if they like it.

While in the theater? I'm sure the old stars used to wonder if there would be people waiting at the stage doors; hoping to get glimpses of people larger than life. But only when they are up on the stage.

Also, not that many people watch TV. The Internet will filter out the best moments. And, then I know I'll find links to U-Tube. Sometimes? Over at Little Green Footballs, where hundreds of people post; sometimes some put up links. Easy to spot. They're in blue. And, that's one of the benefits of the Internet. We don't even call this "re-runs."

Besides, talking about our politicians is interesting stuff. Where's the downside?

Posted by Carol Herman | September 2, 2007 12:04 AM

Didn't Reagan also say "we begin bombing in five minutes?"

Posted by richard mcenroe | September 2, 2007 12:26 AM

These early debates are nothing but 'vanity publishing' for special interest groups. You're nothing until you can announce your debate and have the pols show up. Likewise, it's a cheap point to score when a pol has an attack of 'principles' and refuses to show up for a debate hosted by a group whose support he/she/it didn't anticipate getting anyway...

Posted by Carol Herman | September 2, 2007 1:15 AM

You know what's gonna matter? The stuff people in the public, take to the Internet. And, provide links to U-Tube. So far, it looks "very grass roots" when that happens.

Not that Glenn Reynolds doesn't provide a world of links.

But if you think about it some, you'll see people in their homes now have sophisticated computer, and editing setups. It's a HOBBY!

Doesn't get much better than that.

While off to the side you have the Ron Paul supporters, who do their schtick.

I still think this is a fun, and growing, medium.

And, the more competitors the better.

Where would you put Fred? Among the top 3?

McCain's out. And, so are most of the others. Hanging on, I guess for the excitement of telling their grandkids, some day, that they were in a presidential contest.

What happens, ahead, if the Bonkeys, in fear, begin sounding like republicans? You think they've exhausted their Blue Dogs?

And, how many of you really believe Hillary's got a lock? How do you discount her negatives?

And, what kinds of mistakes would the republican party have to make to lose the mainstream voters, now?

In a world rife with mistakes.

Posted by Bennett | September 2, 2007 1:22 AM

I think we should scrap the debates and go with Thunderdome.

Posted by Buzzy | September 2, 2007 1:44 AM

As for me I could care less if Fred is part of the debates at this stage of the game I just want to hear what he has to say about the issues I care about. If he's as conservative as promised and fits in with what I believe then he'll have my support and my vote. If he doesn't then he won't. When he entered the race and if he did or didn't debate doesn't enter into it at all.

Posted by Adjoran | September 2, 2007 2:08 AM

Debates could be useful, in a proper format.

Sit the candidates at a table with a moderator to keep time only. Questions or policy statements come from the candidates themselves, and likewise their responses.

Other formats are useless at best.

Posted by Christoph | September 2, 2007 5:10 AM

Hey, Captain, I don't know if it's because you don't have any paid ads to go in rotation, but there is a big square to the top right.

If you don't have anything to go in there at this second, why not create an ad or two for something you do, or something going on in the conservative world, or even your favorite charity or something, and put it in there?

Heck - even an ad soliciting ads.

Posted by quickjustice | September 2, 2007 5:16 AM

The televised debate started with Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon back in 1960.

Watch that debate again: The contrast with today's debates is startling. Because no one had any experience with the medium as a forum for a debate, the two men tackled serious issues in a serious, earnest way.

And then the reaction: Nixon "looked" sinister because he had dark beard growth, and poor (or no) makeup. Kennedy looked and sounded like a Hollywood star (or so he was spun).

Making substantive points in debates was abandoned for the "sound byte", the makeup, the John Edwards hair, the "gotcha" moment.

Newt Gingrich has been arguing that each candidate should be forced to speak for an hour, without a prepared text, on three general topics of his own choosing. He followed this format at Cooper Union in a debate against former N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo earlier this year.

As a former college professor, Gingrich is a master of that format. Nonetheless, when a candidate speaks at that length, uninterrupted, you can measure the depth of his or her intellect and his or her grasp of important, broad issues.

In measuring the substance of the candidates, Gingrich's format worked.

Posted by SkyWatch | September 2, 2007 8:02 AM

I agree with Adjoran,

It is the format that needs changing. The VP debate between Chenney and Edwards was one the best I have seen. The two were aloud to actually explain their answers. Since Edwards had no actual knowledge of what he was talking about that came thru front and center.

Posted by athingortwo | September 2, 2007 8:55 AM

Cap'n Ed - You wrote a fairly dumb post yesterday about Thompson's supposed "shrewdness" with his non-campaign (???) ad to air during the debate, and when you got called on it by your readers you're trying to divert attention by changing the subject ... to the debate format and not Thompson's coy, coquette-ish "maybe I will, maybe I won't" routine.

I think almost everybody who's thought about it much would agree that the current debate formula stinks. The media control the debate format, however, not the parties, the candidates, or the pundits.

However, that's beside the point of Thompson's transparently classless act - i.e., delaying his announcement until after this debate, and then trying to have his cake and eat it too by running a "non-campaign" ad during the debate broadcast.

That will go over with voters like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.

Thompson either must get in the middle of the scrum and start throwing and taking punches with the other candidates, or he should shut the heck up until he does.

Posted by Poole | September 2, 2007 9:08 AM

One day, the candidates will realize that the press no longer controls all channels of mass communication. When that day arrives, the candidates will have their own campaign debates without the participation of the media elites.

Using their own campaign websites and independent file sharing sites, the candidates can have their own debates that are not limited to sound bite answers or questions from 'snowmen'.

The candidates would not even have to be at the same location as long as they were all available at the same time for a debate held over the internet.

A debate with no time limits and few rules. A free flowing exchange of positions, opinions and promises that would go directly to the average voter without being filtered by the great thinkers of the media such as Matthews, Olbermann and Stewart.

Of course, the media will cover the debates and attempt to add their own perception of the 'truth' but they will no longer control what does and does not get disseminated to the public.

Ronald Reagan was able to have some control of a debate because, as he said, "I paid for this microphone!" The candidates could pay for their own debates and use as much time as they need to make their case to the American voters while bypassing the handful of political pundits who call themselves journalists.

Posted by MarkT | September 2, 2007 10:20 AM

I don't think the 'average' American pays a lot of attention to politics. For them, having many ways to experience the candidates (debates, youtube, ads, news, etc.) is a good thing.

For political junkies, the debates may be superfluous.

I'd rather have people work on improving the format to make the debates provide useful info that isn't available elsewhere (e.g. deep discussion on a focused issue).

Posted by James | September 2, 2007 10:34 AM

The debate format definitely needs improvement. For starters, some of these also-ran types should just drop out. They've been running for 6+ months and have nothing to show for it. They're taking up space and time that could otherwise be devoted to the candidates that actually have a shot. I'd like to hear more from them.

The questions are embarrasingly bad for the most part. They seemed to be designed with the purpose of generating soundbytes or providing material for mainstream media memes. We don't really learn anything from their answers because the questions are terrible. All that's left is judging poise and presentation. And sure, some of that matters, but most of the candidates have been speaking in public for decades. They're not going to sound like an idiot unless they really are one.

If Thompson's skipping out on one debate, I can hardly blame him. Anything that sets him apart from the pack is probably a good thing. And yes, he'll have to eventually participate in the debates even if just to prove that he can. But the whole idea of the candidates waiting patiently to be called on like good little schoolboys to answer inane questions from a left leaning moderator, well, let's just say it leaves a lot to be desired.

Posted by Mike O | September 2, 2007 10:40 AM

The whole problem really is the asinine number of candidates; five or more makes anything said merely a sound bite. Our 'sense of fair play' (which- in this case- conflicts with common sense) makes it difficult to restrict debates to the 'top tier'. However, does putting the Ron Paul's of the world on the stage with those truly 'in the running' add or detract from the value to the decision-making voters? Yet our sense of fair play insist he be there.

Before, such extreme long shots would have taken themselves out of play before things got serious. But things have never gotten this serious so ludicrously early. Fred being dinged for declaring too late?? Am I the only one who remembers that Labor Day used to be the first time we had to put up with these loud mouths?

Looking for a source of global warming? The hot air coming so early from so many presidential wannabes is as good a culprit as any.

Posted by edward cropper | September 2, 2007 10:42 AM

nice effort at recovery Ed.

debates are primarily for the just tuned in crowd.
Loyalists are in the bag for both sides.
occasionally a candidate gets in a good line and it does have some impact.
They are not debates of course but how many voters know the difference?
Candidates address their comments to the "mob" as Frank Lloyd Wright referred to the masses, and couldn't care less if that mob learned anything just so they were somewhat impressed with the candidates
BS. A vote is a vote is a vote.

Posted by filistro | September 2, 2007 12:58 PM

Ed says: Otherwise, the only debate moments that have stuck to candidates on the trail have been all bad, and I'd argue the same for the Democrats...

I disagree. I think Hillary Clinton did herself all kinds of good with two particular debate moments this summer. One was her smackdown of Obama for saying he'd talk with terrorist regimes his first year in office, which made her look experienced and tough on foreign policy. The other was the "I'm your girl" statement which made her seem more like a real person, less of a humorless "feminazi."

I know those remarks didn't play well in here, of course. But out in the big world where voters are starting to form their impressions, these soundbites made people say hmmm and feel a bit more willing to give her a second look.

And what more, really, can a candidate ask for than that?

Posted by opditch | September 2, 2007 1:43 PM

I prefer fewer debates and much closer to decision time.

Posted by Neo | September 2, 2007 3:09 PM

To think that it was June 6, 1968 when Robert Kennedy won the California primary in a still contested primary race for the Democratic nomination.

June 6th of the election year.

June 6th of this year, more than a year before the election, most of the electorate just don't care. Why ?

Because this whole thing is like watching a cricket match .. boring.

Posted by KJBtruth | September 2, 2007 6:12 PM

Never have seen a cricket match...

Seems like the crickets would be too small and jumpy to make for a good viewing experience...


Posted by Keith | September 3, 2007 5:41 AM

Part of the problem that makes debates pointless is that most candidates don't really have any actual political beliefs that they will debate. At least not any they will actually state publicly. Most of them are empty suits. John Kerry is a perfect example. Other than "he served in Vietnam" and he wasn't Bush, does anyone actually remember what platform he ran on?

Posted by mrlynn | September 3, 2007 7:34 AM

Fred Thompson would be best advised to skip ALL of these demeaning amateur-hour cattle shows. He should just tour the country making speeches to audiences as large as he can muster, until the field is down to two candidates. At that point he should agree to debate one-on-one, with only a time-keeper, for 90 minutes, a la Lincoln-Douglas.

I would also suggest he call his journey an 'education tour'. At each stop, he will pick a topic and review it thoroughly, making sure the audience follows his thinking at every step.

If he can't pull something like this off, then he's just another empty suit, and I'll vote for Duncan Hunter.

/Mr Lynn

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