11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We Can't Expect Much from Presidential Debates

I was struck by the main complaint from participants in a focus group interviewed on CNN following the town hall meeting between Obama and McCain: that they wanted to hear more about what either Obama or McCain would do to solve what ails the country now, like the crisis in health care, getting out of the Iraq war, infusing confidence back into our financial markets, etc. I participated in similar, though larger, groups that watched the vice-presidential candidates square off, and the first debate between Obama and McCain. Our groups had similar criticisms of the candidates -- not speaking to the issues by offering concrete proposals to fix them. But in reality, the sine qua non of debating in whatever format as a presidential or vice-presidential contender is to be as evasive as possible, though all the while offering snippets, or sound bites, for potential relief.

This is called "Politics 101" (as if taught in an introductory college course for wannabe politicians). After all, to be an effective politician, one does not directly answer questions on solving issues, and certainly does not commit to concrete proposals in a 90 minute debate without fear of reprisals. Case in point -- during the debate in Nashville, McCain offered a proposal that, as he said, was not Obama's and was not Bush's -- it was all his. He offered to have the government buy up an additional $300 billion in mortgages that banks had on their books but on which they would not collect. Thereafter, he was criticized by his base for suggesting the government intrude even further upon the private sector on top of the $700 billion bailout bill signed into law recently. He also should have appreciated that his suggestion had been incorporated into this legislation.

Unless a politician can do what Obama did when debating McCain on health care during the second debate, viewers and voters alike should realize that solutions take days, weeks, even months, to debate and analyze before they become law. Again, all that we can hope for are sound bites for success offered by those seeking our vote when they debate. Moderator Tom Brokaw asked McCain and Obama in the second debate about whether health care was a privilege, a right or a responsibility. McCain equivocated; Obama said clearly, and without hesitation, it is a right. If he becomes President-Elect, Obama -- and he does not deviate from what he says here -- this statement about health care could well be the springboard for real change in health care for all Americans.

Our presidential candidates square off one final time this election cycle. Even though it will not be a town hall setting and it will be moderated by a media chieftain, Bob Schieffer, don't hold your breath for anything more than what we have all heard in the first two debates. We will never get real substance (other than perhaps a "gem" tossed out by Obama, as mentioned above). In the end, the value of debates, as the groups in which I participated made clear, is to evaluate candidates for office in terms of style, the way they articulate positions and an understanding of the issues, how they defend themselves against the opponent, and general demeanor. From a debate perspective, unfortunately this is all we have upon which to base a vote come November 4.