The problem with presidential debates

Arguably one of the most memorable moments in presidential debate history occurred in 1976, when Gerald Ford insisted that the USSR was not dominating Eastern Europe at the time. Along with other candidate slip-ups— like a proposed question suggesting the hypothetical rape of Michael Dukakis’ wife and the infamous sighs that Al Gore let loose during his debate series— Ford’s mistake worried millions of voters.

Mistakes in these debates are on Facebook, Twitter, memes and never forgotten. But what do these slip-ups truly reveal about the presidential candidates and their ability to lead the free world towards a better future? Some would say, very little. And some would push the issue further, to suggest that it is the fault of the presidential debates themselves, which have become an inefficient and ineffective way of showcasing a candidate’s true abilities, policies and plans for office.

Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia

One of the current arguments against the format of presidential debates questions the rule that disallows candidates from bringing notes with them. While this may seem necessary to determine whether the candidates know their facts, in reality, who expects the president (at least once he is in office) to form policy, pass laws, and make decisions without access to vital information and thoughtful research?

The lack of notes creates an atmosphere that leads to inevitable mistakes and shallow policies - even the president can’t keep every single fact straight when speaking to tens of millions of people on national television. When it comes down to it, many would say that most Americans do not actually care about the President’s skills of memorization, but truly do care about his abilities to make difficult decisions as President of the United States.

Today’s voters are raised with access to television. So, it would follow that a televised presidential debate is logical and informative. Except some critics argue the opposite.

Along with this television exposure has come a tendency to treat what we see on TV in a certain way. More specifically, we begin to focus on things like outfits, facial expressions, hand gestures and word phrasing of a candidate. This is opposed to his true policies and plans for the future. The fact that the debates are televised is, in itself, problematic, despite the fact that it is seen as the only way to enable the presidential debates to reach the entire nation.

Ideas for a change in format of the presidential debates are circulating and it is becoming more clear that some Americans are looking for a better way to evaluate their candidates for office.

Some of these ideas include an interactive technology debate, in which the presidents would be able to respond to direct questions from the voters (asked via text, email, Skype) AND be allowed access to the internet, their advisors, a phone, etc. These allowances would be realistic, as the president will never, and that means never, go ahead with any policy decisions without the go-ahead or input from his advisors while in office.

Courtesy of Barack Obama/Flickr

Other proposals are along the same lines, and suggest putting the candidates in a debate that acts as a situation room. Each candidate would be given hypothetical situations that could occur while in office and are asked how they would respond to the issue.

This might remind some of Bob Schieffer’s question to Romney and Obama in the most recent presidential debate, asking how they would react to a call that Israel was instigating an attack on Iran. Both candidates, unaccustomed to this form of questioning, responded inconsequentially with Romney denying it would ever happen and Obama failing to address it. So Americans do not, and will not, know how either candidate would respond to this crisis, were it to actually occur.

Politics is, for most, a distant and unknown entity that is difficult to relate to. Young voters in particular are struggling to motivate themselves and their peers to get to the polls. They feel uninvolved with the presidential race and truly believe that no matter what the outcome, it will have little impact on them.

It could be because of the format of the presidential debates. They do not allow voters to feel connected to their candidates and provide little knowledge about how a candidate is truly prepared to take on the presidency.

Consequently, the debates turn into a “sports match” type of environment, as described by the Washington Monthly. You watch to support your candidate, you smile and clap when he says something you like or something that presents an obstacle to his opponent, and then you vote for him – just as you would if you hadn’t watched at all.

 

 

Comments