- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

In theory, presidential candidates directly debating in a national broadcast is a great idea. Barring a major gaffe or a cute one-liner, however, the upcoming debates will likely be of little consequence. Sad to say, the electorate is currently poorly served by the debate venue, largely because candidates and their handlers make sure little debating actually occurs.

Some past presidential debates have affected the elections, but good debating had little to do with it. Jimmy Carter said he wouldn’t have won the 1976 election if not for the debates. That might be so, but surely Gerald Ford’s blunder in declaring there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” had more to do with the election result than Mr. Carter’s debating technique.

Few remember the points of evidence in 1980’s debates, but the election may have turned on the frequently repeated Reagan one-liner to Mr. Carter, “There you go again.”

Presidential elections are too important to turn on a misstatement or a consultant-designed one-liner, but that’s where things stand in political debating.

TV, of course, is the major factor in warping the process. As an emotional medium, television provides information inefficiently. A candidate who would try to make debating points with sound reasoning and ample evidence would come across as boring and calculating. Thus, candidates are well advised by handlers to play it safe and stay “on message” with simplistic catchphrases or neatly repackaged minispeeches. It matters little what question is raised; the candidate simply pulls up a previously rehearsed answer.

History indicates style is trumps substance in TV political debates. The obvious contrasts of John F. Kennedy’s appearance and gestures to Richard Nixon’s are legendary.

Viewers of the 1992 debates probably recalled few of the arguments, but much was made of the first President Bush looking repeatedly at his watch while Mr. Clinton performed.

Then there was Al Gore in 2000, sighing off camera every time George W. Bush spoke. Viewers might not follow complicated political issues, but they can easily decide whose looks and mannerisms they like. TV exaggerates this.

Voters who want to follow the coming debates more than superficially might consider listening over the radio or reading a newspaper transcript the next day. They should focus on anything that distinguishes one candidate from the other. Ignore the majority of the material on which both candidates agree. Everybody is against terrorism, loves his country and wants a robust economy.

Voters should consider whether the candidates have any material to back up their campaign slogans. When Mr. Bush says, “We’ve turned the corner,” he needs to indicate which corner and what evidence shows it has been turned. When Mr. Kerry uses the word “wrong” in every sentence about Mr. Bush, can he provide the standard for determining “wrong”?

Voters also should look for direct responses to direct questions. They should consider whether the candidates can think spontaneously, and if they possess any sincerity to accompany the concocted emotions and smooth talking from the practice sessions.

Finally, voters should not think of the debates as encounters to be won or lost, but instead look for policies on which they agree with a particular candidate.

The presidential debate ritual has lost much of its charm for voters over the years. More than 80 million people watched the Reagan-Carter debate in 1980. In 1992, the average audience for the three Clinton-Bush I debates was more than 60 million. The average of the three Bush II-Gore debates in 2000 was less than 41 million viewers.

It might be just as well public interest is declining in presidential debates. Deciding a vote based on a candidate’s TV debating skill is just not a good idea. There is little transferability of debating ability to, for example, managing a Cabinet, overseeing the military, or bargaining behind closed doors with leaders of Congress.

Early in September, Mr. Kerry urged Mr. Bush to have weekly debates until the election. Given that neither presidential contender has proven a great campaign orator, even the agreed-upon three debates — the first on Sept. 30 — will be mind-numbing enough. These will not be Lincoln-Douglas quality debates, and it’s unlikely they will be studied 146 years hence.


Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences

DePauw University

Greencastle, Ind.

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