What Good Are Debates?

As I prepare to live blog tonight’s debate from my den (instead of at Our House, where the rest of the Northern Alliance are free from my germs), it’s worth revisiting my previously-expressed opinion on the usefulness of these gladitorial spectacles that we stage three or four times every election cycle. Unfortunately, I got caught agreeing with Teresa Heinz Kerry — always a dangerous position:
I completely agree with Teresa Heinz Kerry:

Heinz Kerry said debates have become about scoring a punch with quick soundbites. “It’s just silly,” she said. “I think those debates are really unproductive and they made it hard for all of them to (get their message across).”

In fact, I would call them exceedingly silly, made so by live audiences who ooh, aah, gasp, titter, and applaud the most banal and trite comebacks. These debates embody the vacuity of modern hight-tech media sound bite-ism. The formats do not allow for thoughtful policy discourse, and in fact are designed to eliminate any hope of that. They are entertainment, at least in theory, a type of gladiator arena where the fight is not so much between the gladiators themselves as it is between the audience members to stay awake long enough to punctuate their champions’ verbal jabs with the appropriate sound effect.
To be sure, they’ve produced memorable, even classic moments:
* Richard Nixon’s facial meltdown under the hot lights against Kennedy
* Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” against Carter, and
* Reagan’s “I won’t hold his youth and inexperience against him” comeback against Mondale
* Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” against an outclassed Dan Quayle (VP debate)
* Al Gore acting like he had better things to do against George W. Bush
If pressed, 99% will only remember these moments from those classic debates, not anything about policy or philosophy, and especially not anything specific. So if these events are the only things memorable about televised debates, what exactly about the debates informs your choice as a voter? Or, if you make decisions based on these superficial and irrelevant incidents, maybe the debates are enabling you to avoid the serious work of evaluating candidates based on their record, their policy positions, and so on, which is a lot more work than having this pablum force-fed to you via the boob tube. I’ve stopped watching them; they’re embarassing and they’re pointless. One cheer for Mrs. Heinz Kerry for pointing it out.
Power Line has a great post demonstrating just about everything I said above. The big memorable question for the evening?

“I’d be curious to find out, if you could pick one of your fellow candidates to party with, which you would choose.”

Great Moments in Democracy, Part 9. Will someone please drive a stake through the heart of the debate idea now?
I wrote that last November, and my opinion hasn’t changed much since then. I still think presidential debates are so artificial and uninspiring that viewers only tune in to either reinforce their already-made choice or to look for “gotcha!” moments. Neither one are particularly edifying for political discourse.
Who knows? Maybe tonight will change my mind …

One thought on “What Good Are Debates?”

  1. The Debate

    Well, I’ve been watching the first 25 minutes of this thing, and I’m not sure if I can watch more. It just seems annoying and pointless. Neither of these guys is really capable of excelling in this format, and the whole thing is grating. Kerry is Kerry…

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