Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why Debates Matter (and Why They Don't)

I have a love-hate relationship with debates.  On the one hand, they break every one of my rules.  Because the majority of people aren't watching and will only hear the sound bites the next day, the candidates are incentivized to be sensational, rude, and to stubbornly defend whatever position they choose to stake in the heat of the moment. There can be no humility in a debate, because any hesitation can be construed as weakness.

On the other hand, they are the height of political theater, and political junkies like me live for them.  It's what turns lawmaking from tedium into a spectator sport.  I can't deny that I love watching two candidates attack each other and really go for the jugular.  It's amusing.  It's entertainment.

But government is serious business, and the next leader of our nation shouldn't be chosen solely based on their ability to score cheap shots on live television.  After all, you can win a debate and still be wrong.

That doesn't mean there is no value in having a debate.  In fact, I can point to at least three ways that we benefit from watching presidential debates:

1) Debates give the candidates an opportunity to articulate their positions on the issues.

For some voters, the debates may be the first or only chance they get to find out which candidate they side with or to be persuaded to their side.  There are other, perhaps better ways to research positions, such as through browsing the candidates' websites, inspecting their voting records, and reading analysis from a source you trust.  Recently I took the "I Side With" quiz and found it to be a fairly accurate representation of the way I feel about the candidates, though there is possibly some bias in the way the quiz is structured. In case you're interested, I scored highest with Jeb Bush (80%) and Marco Rubio (77%).  I have something in common with every candidate, including Hillary Clinton (57%), who scored even higher on my list than Donald Trump (51%).

2) Debates play an important role in "winnowing the field."

Especially in the case of the 2016 Republican primary, we need something like the debates to differentiate the broad field of candidates.  News coverage can sometimes be even more biased toward a bombastic candidate than a debate, so seeing the politicians on the same stage can literally place them on an even footing.  At that point, it is up to the candidates themselves to leave a good impression.  In an ideal world, Americans wouldn't be swayed by the theatrical elements of the debates but instead would be looking for substance.  Whether that translates to reality is up for ... debate.

3) Debates expose the temperament of the candidates.

A president will rarely find him- or herself sparring one on one with a world leader or with a member of Congress.  But frequently they will have to exercise persuasive power.  So while "debate skills" are not important per se, a plausible candidate will have to show the ability to advocate their ideals without being offensive.  A good president is thoughtful, respectful, articulate, intelligent, sincere, and ultimately, decisive.  These attributes occasionally shine through amid the circus of the debate.

Who Won the First Debate?

While judging debates is highly subjective, we can objectively say that certain candidates did better than others at last week's debates based on the subsequent polling.  But based on my previous knowledge and after watching the first debate, I have my own impressions of the candidates.  I would divide them into the following four groups (again, this is purely my opinion based on the campaign so far):

Plausible Nominees

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Scott Walker, in that order, are the only candidates that truly have a shot at the nomination and the presidency.  They have the experience (three governors and one unusually prominent senator), the demeanor, and the broad appeal to win a general election.  As I mentioned before, my views tend to line up best with Jeb Bush; unfortunately, he didn't bring his A game to the first debate, so it remains to be seen whether he can convince Americans that he is up to the challenge.  Marco Rubio has great fundamentals and would perhaps be the sharpest contrast against Hillary Clinton, although he will have another shot down the road if 2016 doesn't end up being his year.  John Kasich does the "compassionate conservative" shtick exceptionally well, and being overwhelmingly popular in Ohio is a definite plus for the general election.  Scott Walker has the "blue state" credentials and I have nothing against him, but I simply have a hard time getting excited about his campaign.  Nevertheless, his polling has been strong and he shouldn't be underestimated.

It's certainly possible that someone other than these four will win the nomination; but if it comes to that, chances are something catastrophic happened and the GOP is in big trouble.

The Backup Plan

Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have some impressive credentials, but they are niche candidates and can't win the nomination under normal circumstances.  Of these, Christie had the highest potential but it was lost after the hug and Bridgegate.  If every other candidate chokes, maybe one of them will swoop in to save the day and give the Republicans a nominee with a solid resume.  But none has much promise against Clinton in the general.  Eventually, they will drop out of the race, but for now at least they can exert some influence on the party platform.

The Sideshow

I mean this with all due respect, but Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina do not have the experience required to be president.  Their polling numbers are a result of the public's disdain for politicians in general.  I admire Trump's and Fiorina's business experience and wish there was more of it in Washington (I voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 after all); but Washington is different from Wall Street and they ought to prove themselves as a governor or senator before seeking the nation's highest office.

Setting aside my personal feelings about Trump (which are not favorable), he is the most hated candidate in the race.  I wouldn't feel comfortable having him at the head of the military, directing the justice department, choosing Supreme Court nominees, etc.  (Although I wouldn't mind putting him in a diplomatic position where tough negotiating skills are needed, but not one where a potential nuclear war is involved; maybe ambassador to Germany?)  Carson and Fiorina are at least civil and they have something to add to the political discourse; they ought to remain in the race as long as their budgets will allow.  But ultimately neither they nor Trump will be the nominee, despite their apparent support in the polls.  You can take that to the bank.  (I hope.)

DOA Candidates

Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki haven't registered in the polls, even after their (lackluster) debate performances.  In another cycle any one of them might have been at the head of the pack, but this year the bench is deep.  If there is going to be a dark horse, look to this group.  

But to win an election you have to appeal to somebody.  Only one person showed up to a recent campaign event for Santorum in Iowa (in context this anecdote is only slightly less embarrassing).  Rick Perry is out of money and can't pay his staff in some states.  The other candidates never had any money or support to begin with.  They had their chance; the field is too crowded and now is the time to gracefully bow out, or at least shortly after the CNN debate on September 16th.  Unfortunately, they are politicians so I won't hold my breath.

So far, the campaign is off to an exciting start.  There is no real front-runner and as far as who will come out on top, your guess is as good as mine.  But it's not time to panic just yet.  Here's hoping that next month's debate will help thin the herd.  

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