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Televised presidential debates have harmed America

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 23, 2012

Not many American voters changed their minds as a result of last night’s presidential debate, I feel sure. Voters who favored Barack Obama before the debate generally felt that the President had the better of the discussion; those who favored Mitt Romney thought he was the winner.

But then, neither candidate was really trying to change minds. Both Obama and Romney were clearly concentrating their attention on those who have not yet made up their minds: those elusive “undecided” voters. Campaign advisers essentially conceded that both candidates were posturing rather than arguing; they were more concerned about conveying a public image than explaining a public policy.

So President Obama did his best to make Romney appear uninformed and reckless on questions of foreign policy. Romney, meanwhile, strove to appear calm and authoritative: to project a “presidential” image. Each candidate had obviously polished his talking points, memorized a few one-liners, and even rehearsed a set expression to assume when his rival was talking. I cannot say with any certainty which candidate “won” the debate, but I can say that image took precedence over reality, and style won over substance.

What does it mean, anyway, to “win” a debate in which both participants are perfectly willing to sacrifice a good argument for the sake of appearances? If this had been a true debate, the candidates would have practiced winning arguments rather than winning smiles. As a student I was a competitive debater; later I coached debate teams and judged contests. Let me tell you, folks: What I saw last night was not a debate.

During televised presidential debates, the organizers usually take time to remind us that the “exchange of ideas” is the essence of the contest. Do you believe that? I’m reminded of the beauty contests in which trim young women strut around a stage wearing bikinis and high heels; we’re told by the contest organizers that this exercise helps the contestants to demonstrate their “poise.” Let’s be honest. We’re not really evaluating the women’s poise, and we’re not really comparing the candidates’ ideas, either.

Last night’s debate, which was (theoretically, at least) devoted to foreign policy, promised some fireworks. In their last previous encounter, Obama and Romney had a heated clash about the assault on an American consulate in Benghazi. Everyone expected a renewal of that dispute. But both candidates tacked carefully around the issue. Why? It is understandable that President Obama did not want to talk about the slaughter in Libya; the topic is embarrassing to him. But why did Governor Romney drop the argument? Apparently because he did not want to appear combative; if he pressed the question aggressively, that might interfere with his overriding determination to appear cool, controlled, and “presidential.”

For similar reasons, no doubt, both Obama and Romney avoided comment on the looming collapse of the European Union: a development with enormous implications for American foreign policy. Both men accepted the highly dubious proposition that the government of Afghanistan will be prepared to defend itself without American troops within a matter of months. Neither candidate spoke at any length about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

In a column for The Catholic Thing, Hadley Arkes laments that on domestic questions, too, the presidential campaigns have steered around the contentious issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Informed voters know where the candidates stand on these issues, but they do not hear the issues debated.

An exchange of ideas? The Lincoln-Douglas debates were an exchange of ideas. In today’s political contests we have come instead to expect an exchange of barbs. Campaign advisers are not even hoping that their candidate’s logical clarity will carry the day; they are hoping to snare their opponent in a gaffe or a “gotcha” moment. Televised presidential debates have become another form of “infotainment.”

And sadly we, the voters, accept it. We don’t demand that presidential candidates address their policy differences forthrightly. We are content with a candidate who supports our favored causes, even if he wants to keep quiet about them. Since 1960, when a bad shave on debate night might have cost Richard Nixon the presidency, televised debates have contributed mightily to the dumbing down of American political discourse.

More than 200 years ago, the Federalist Papers set forth the basic principles of constitutional government with extraordinary candor and in remarkable depth. Today’s presidential candidates evidently don’t believe that the American public is prepared to grapple with such sophisticated arguments in the early 21st century. But why not? Last night President Obama kept suggesting that America’s problems—even foreign-policy problems—could be resolved by hiring more teachers. Yet the Federalist essays were written for a reading audience of American voters who had only a few years of formal schooling. The real problem is that we Americans are no longer willing to ask the fundamental questions about the future of our country, nor are our political leaders willing to answer them.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dt.dean9713 - Oct. 25, 2012 1:18 PM ET USA

    What if the two candidates were asked pertinent moral questions and actually answered them with what they honestly thought? One would cetainly wonder how well that would go over with the voting public. The secularists would be up in arms if Romney gave morally virtuous answers and the morally virtuous would be up in arms with plainly stated answers from Obama. It appears that "I know nothing" is the way to get elected. They would speak their minds if this were not so. Dumbness works.

  • Posted by: rlloret6216 - Oct. 25, 2012 10:07 AM ET USA

    Thank you again for your insightful observations and clear communication of the issues of our time. This is why I support CatholicCulture.org. every month. Where else could I get this perspective if you weren't here?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Oct. 24, 2012 12:01 AM ET USA

    Disclaimer: I am conservative. Now; onward. I was listening to NPR today and heard an interesting story about personality traits in Presidents. The least important personality until the era of FDR (and the fireside chats) was charisma. And now we evaluate charisma first. We are being taken in by snake-oil salesmen wearing slick smiles and expensive suits. It's worse than a beauty pageant, it's a dog show.

  • Posted by: FredC - Oct. 23, 2012 6:48 PM ET USA

    Only the candidates that have no chance of winning stay on the issues. The two major candidates are coached to stay away from the issues, other than to complain. They are told to meet as many people as possible, then get out the vote of their supporters. They would not give an interview with a tough interviewer. Maybe non-politicians should have the debate, then the politicians could be asked which side they support. Keep in mind that presidents don't make decisions in a debate format.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Oct. 23, 2012 5:48 PM ET USA

    It may not be so much a lack of *willingness* to ask the fundamental questions as an inability to do so, to even *know* what those questions are. Infotainment leads not only to the dumbing down of the debates.

  • Posted by: JJF - Oct. 23, 2012 4:32 PM ET USA

    Mr. Romney seemed to be trying to win the election, not the debate.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 23, 2012 4:19 PM ET USA

    I agree with you, but I have come to understand that Presidential debates simply are not dialogues. They are competitive interviews, and each candidate is put under pressure and watched for the reaction. So it's kind of an audition. Real debate on real issues needs to take place, and it does on the floors of Congress, and in the Supreme Court. I wish it were different, but, as Cronkite would tell you, "That's the way it is."

  • Posted by: elizabethshaw2491 - Oct. 23, 2012 11:14 AM ET USA

    Phil, I watched the debate last night and came away with the same impression as you. Both candidates disappointed me greatly. I was and am a Romney supporter, due primarly to the loss of religious freedom under Obama, but I had hoped that Romney would show more teeth than a smile. What a missed opportunity.

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