Do Debates Really Tell Us Anything About the Candidates?

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Robert Guttman Director, Center on Politics and Foreign Relations (CPFR), Johns Hopkins University

Last night's unique CNN/YouTube so-called debate with the eight Democratic presidential candidates told the audience more about the people asking the questions than about the people vying for the presidency.

The programs after the debate seemed even more absurd as the people asking the questions were being interviewed by CNN's Anderson Cooper. Please. Do we really need to know more about the questioners? Of course not. They are not running for public office. While the format was fine to hear from people who took the time to make their videos it may not have been all that representative of the American public at large.

And, the questions should have been better screened. The man who asked the question about his "baby" which turned out to be a massive gun was obscene and Senator Biden correctly answered the question by indicating the question was out of bounds.

What the American voter wants to know more about are the candidates running for the presidency and not the questioners.

These so-called discussions are not real debates. The format doesn't lend itself to a spirited give and take debate.

Each candidate gives a small pre-packaged press conference answering each question as they see fit and how it fits into his or her campaign topics.

Each candidate tries so hard not to alienate any special interest or ethnic group or voting bloc that the discussions become rather bland.

The idea that someone wins or loses is also rather trite as no candidate goes outside of his or her pre-arranged set of answers to try and say anything controversial.

There should be smaller debates -- actual debates on a single topic -- with two or three candidates -- really going after one another and expressing their true beliefs and explaining why their opponent's views are wrong and wouldn't work.

Last night's discussion was clever and there were some amusing questions being asked in the videos. Maybe this is the beginning of a new age in televised discussions with the candidates.
However, we still are not finding out much about the candidates as they are trying too hard not to reveal much about themselves.

Certainly, they discuss how they have voted on every piece of legislation that applies to the question at hand or how they have spoken out on a particular issue more than their opponents.
But, there still seems to be a disconnect with this format and we don't really learn too much useful about the candidates.

Senator Joe Biden should be given the award for the most blunt and outspoken candidate of the debate. He seemed to speak his mind and he certainly can talk with much knowledge on foreign policy issues.

Senator Barack Obama appeared to be in good form last night and I was impressed with his sincerity on several questions.

Once again, I felt Senator Hillary Clinton was too programmed and too cautious. As the frontrunner she was doing what the leading candidate always does and that is to not rock the boat.

Former Senator John Edwards looks almost too clean-cut and proper but he is a good talker.
Senator Chris Dodd looked too serious and former Senator Mike Gravel gets way too worked up over his answers and loses his perspective.

Governor Bill Richardson gave an honest answer to doing away with the No Child Left Behind law which he said is not working.

One of the best lines of the night came from the host Anderson Cooper when he responded to Representative Dennis Kucinich about who the congressman should speak to on his left in answer to a question to say something good about someone to your left.

Cooper, making a play on words, said he didn't think there was anyone to the left of Kucinich which was a very astute statement.

Last night was a clever experiment which may set the standard for future debates. However, let's stop focusing on the questioners and focus more on the candidates. These formats are not the best way to learn about who the candidates really are and what they really think. They are pre-packaged press conferences and not real debates. We need to move to a format with only two or three candidates really debating one another on a single issue for a longer period of time.
We need to hear less about what the candidates have done - they are all accomplished politicians - and more about what they will do to solve our problems now and in the future.

Can you seriously say that you know more about each of the candidates after last night's discussion?