Stop the Debates

10/18/2012 05:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2012
  • Mike Edwards Blogger; Co-author of 'Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well'

The presidential and vice presidential debates should be immediately stopped. They are a waste of time. They encourage voters to focus on trivial, meaningless factors. And they have little or nothing to do with actual policy.

Think about what we've seen in the debates so far. In the first debate, Obama and Romney spent 90-plus minutes spouting platitudes and lies -- oh, sorry, "misrepresentations" -- about each other's domestic policy stances. There was a discussion of tax policies in which Romney avoided giving specifics while Obama asserted that things were in Romney's tax plan that aren't actually there. The discussion of Medicare involved a false assertion by Romney that Obama stripped money from the program, and a false assertion by Obama that Romney would skyrocket out-of-pocket costs for seniors.

At the end of the debate, the pundits immediately wanted to know who "won," as if it were a sporting match. And how do we determine victory? Honesty? Certainly not. Quality of ideas? Don't be naïve. Nope, the pundits declared victory based on "energy level," who had the best "zingers," and who "looked more presidential." Fact-checking, if it happened at all, was a secondary item; an afterthought to the more important elements of victory, good for a side-bar or a smaller article on page A3.

Then we had the vice presidential debate, in which the same lies and platitudes were repeated, although this time with more venom because the vice presidential candidates don't have to worry as much about being likable. One might wonder what the point of the VP debate is at all, given that the president is the one who actually makes all the important decisions. But at least it resulted in a national conversation about Joe Biden's smile; surely that's relevant to the country's future!

Most recently, we had the town hall-style debate, which President Obama apparently won by punching Mitt Romney repeatedly in the face... or at least that would be a reasonable conclusion from the proliferation of boxing metaphors used to describe the debate. So much for a calm, reasoned, intelligent discussion of the issues.

Of course, these debates are not without cost. The candidates spend hour upon hour preparing for the debates -- after all, winning is important! One of those candidates happens to be President of the United States, and you might think he would have better things to do with his time. But even if the candidates spend that time campaigning, instead of in debate preparation, at least they would be talking to constituents about the direction of the country. That is certainly a better use of time than learning how to control one's facial expressions or practicing "zingers."

Supposedly the debates allow us to compare and contrast the candidates. But what are we comparing and contrasting them on? Certainly not policy; the verbal sparring leaves little room for serious answers to serious questions. Instead, we are comparing and contrasting them on meaningless factors: height, appearance, vigor, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. None of which actually make a person a better president. An illness left FDR mostly paralyzed from the waist down, unable to walk more than a step or two, and made it very difficult for him to stand for any length of time. He would have been a miserably failure in a televised presidential debate, and yet he was one of the greatest presidents in American history. But of course, most voters only knew him from his voice on the radio and his image standing at a podium (he wore leg braces to help him stand and would use the podium to steady himself); his disability and physical awkwardness were non-obvious and therefore they didn't hold that against him. And the country was better off as a result.

Of course, we should encourage the candidates to have a real discussion about policy, and I'm all for these discussions being nationally televised. But any event in which the candidates are on stage at the same time will quickly devolve into a comparison of trivialities. Yes, trivialities such as height, last name, and facial characteristics will affect voter decisions anyway, but we certainly shouldn't be encouraging that behavior. The debates, and the media coverage of them, do more to highlight the differences on those kind of irrelevant factors than they do to highlight differences on policy stances.

Instead, we should replace the debates with a series of forums of the type that Pastor Rick Warren held during the 2008 general election. First he got Obama on stage and asked him a series of questions, while McCain was backstage in an isolated room where he couldn't hear Obama's answers. Then Obama left, and McCain came on to answer the same questions. At the end of the night, voters who watched the forum had an excellent idea about the similarities and differences between the two men, their different approaches to politics and policy, and their different styles. This type of format actually does what the debates only claim to do: allow the voters to directly compare the candidates' answers on a variety of important policy questions. Moreover, because the two candidates are not onstage at the same time, and because they don't know how each other answered the questions, it minimizes both the pointless bickering that happens in the name of "debate" and comparisons on non-policy matters.

Right now, the debates are forums in which the worst impulses of the candidates, pundits, and voters all come together to encourage us to do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. So let's remove the distraction; if the point is policy, let's create forums about policy. All we give up is a chance to see the candidates participate in an awkward competition that is irrelevant to the job of being President of the United States. Sure, it's fun and it gives pundits something to talk about. But if all we want out of the debates is a widely watched and widely discussed national competition between the candidates, we'd be just as well-served by putting them on Dancing with the Stars.