What You Should Think About Presidential Debates

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

–Nikita Krushchev

We Americans have a peculiarly lax notion of what constitutes political debate. It is not at all uncommon in democratic societies for heads of state to make a habit of standing before opposition leaders in public, giving spontaneous answers to the toughest questions a critic of policy could pose. This tends to introduce moments of levity or even embarrassment that some say would be best kept apart from government. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude ideas so indefensible that they certainly should be kept apart from government.

As far from that level of public accountability as we may be, our culture celebrates democratic traditions. Debates as we conduct them still serve some purpose. Among other things, they are vital window dressing to keep low-level political insiders confident that the results of elections are an expression of popular will more than an outcome of power brokers’ whims. In a manner that seems less significant with each passing cycle, Presidential debates also stir up discussion throughout the nation. In times past, fairly specific points of policy might be addressed in detail. Even today, sloganeering and optimistic vagueness still expose substantial audiences to unfamiliar facets of the candidates.

In fact, 2007 has brought us an unusual phenomenon in that both entrenched parties promote many televised debates as part of their own candidate selection processes. Large fields mean that individual candidates only enjoy a few minutes of speaking time at each event, but as a whole they constitute tremendous free air time for the dominant political parties. Well, “free” may be a misnomer, because maintaining media interest involves allowing a few intriguing questions into the mix of softballs and cliches.

In the end though, I suspect more people develop the illusion of understanding than any actual understanding from this process. Take variations in foreign policy practices advocated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When confronted with a question about the use of nuclear weapons in counterterrorist operations, Sen. Clinton’s answer was profoundly irresponsible, woefully misinformed, and theoretically the cause of historic catastrophe. By contrast, Sen. Obama responded as anyone with a working knowledge of modern munitions should — that conventional weapons are already more than up to to the task of neutralizing any terrorist target that might also be destroyed by a nuclear strike.

To say that “nuclear weapons should never be taken off the table” is either a pointless bluff or a sign of ignorance about the enormous downside of detonating nuclear weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, America is a superpower, and we do well to face or even embrace that fact. However, threatening suicidal terrorists with what they would regard as martyrdom, in this case with the especially grand gesture of producing a radioactive wasteland at the site of the event, seems like a flawed approach (to say the least.) Implying that there is a “table” to sit at with terrorists is itself a little awkward, but legitimizing the “do what we say or else we’ll nuke you!” posture is downright absurd.

What happened the day after both candidates expressed their views? Infotainment hacks came to the consensus that Sen. Obama’s inexperience was showing while Sen. Clinton demonstrated the kind of superior judgment she gets from . . . from . . . well, from sleeping with a working President, I suppose. Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear “bunker buster” initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.

Most people who would describe themselves as “wonks” would have no trouble following the facts and dismissing that quirk of the process as trivial. Yet still Sen. Obama struggles with perceptions of inexperience and still Sen. Clinton rests on popular exaggerations of her expertise. No doubt both are educated thoughtful people. However, while campaigning to become the President of the United States, one of them refused to rule out a military option that anyone at least moderately versed in real life weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to dismiss out of hand . . . and the next day she gained ground because of it!

The issue of meeting with heads of government from unfriendly states is less clearcut. Still, the debates wound up promoting public misunderstandings. I disagree with Sen. Clinton’s position that summits with nations like Iran or North Korea should never occur but that the other party makes major concessions simply for the chance to meet with an American President. However, public figures willing to endorse her opinion include plenty of respectable informed experts (unlike the “nuking terrorist camps isn’t a bad idea” set.) This is an area where the nation would benefit from a healthy and deep clash of ideas.

Instead that too wound up being “scored” by vapid media analysts as some sort of win for Sen. Clinton and another indicator of Sen. Obama’s inexperience. There are also plenty of experienced credible experts supporting Sen. Obama’s approach of preserving the option for unconditional summit diplomacy when dealing with troublesome states. If our democracy was truly thriving, then it seems like this would have been the subject of avid discussions from coast to coast. Insofar as it did receive any follow-up discussion, that tended to occur in passing while pundits reviewed the most recent debate as a whole.

Dwelling on the disagreements between the two leading Democratic candidates merely provides a case study in a broader phenomenon. Modern Presidential debates seem to do more to promote the perception of an open popular process than they do to promote the reality of an open popular process. People who are actively averse to informative political media will tune in to these spectacles, perhaps listen to a little analysis as well, and come away with a sense of satisfaction for having performed their civic duty to be well-informed. Admittedly, there are plenty of voters even less informed. Yet that is no justification for celebrating the existing process as if it did justice to the values and aspirations on which this nation was founded.

So, what should you think about Presidential debates? If you like political theater, then by all means you should assemble some snacks and enjoy the show. Even if everyone maintains his or her public persona for the duration, there are bound to be a few moments of interest. Then there are those rare instances where facades crumble and something resembling real human interaction takes place. Given the trend away from the give and take of “real” debate and toward a parade of simple questions with brief answers, neither ideas nor personalities clash much anymore. Yet the potential for an authentic exchange has yet to fall to zero.

One thing you should not think about Presidential debates is that they are an effective alternative to following the issues and the candidates over the long haul. Governing a huge modern nation is about as complex as any activity could be. A quick glimpse at something relevant can add to understanding, but by itself it does not constitute understanding. If you have strong stances of your own on pressing issues, then you have a solid beginning in the hunt for insight into the best use of your vote. If not . . . well, keep checking here, and perhaps you’ll find out a great deal more about what you should think.

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