Simon Williamson

Why I hate the presidential debates

2012-10-26 11:07

Simon Williamson

The much-lauded practice of the US presidential debates achieves very little in terms of working out who would make a better president.

Held within a month of the election, their only purpose from a voting point of view is that the same messages that the candidates have been espousing for years (or in Republican candidate Mitt Romney's case, days) reach more ears.

The audiences for the debates ranged from a peak of over 70-million people to a low of 59-million – in a country with an electorate of around 150-million, that is enormous.
But while daily tracking polls and snap polls (the equivalent of asking you what you think of a piece of food before you have finished swallowing) showed a swing towards Romney after the first debate, and a stagnation in that due to better performances by incumbents Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama in the following three, no candidate was tested by the things that actually make a difference when one occupies the Oval Office. Being commander-in-chief isn't all about showmanship.
Incidentally, while many South Africans seemed enthusiastic about a series of debates between Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and President Jacob Zuma last week (as is Zille's wont when these debates occur in other parts of the world), can you imagine fitting a discussion about the Youth Wage Subsidy or the echelon of hell in which the mining industry finds itself into two minutes per candidate with one-minute rebuttals?

This is aside from the fact that South Africa's system of representation means the rules would likely have to include members of all parties represented in Parliament (which would mean two minutes from 13 candidates – 26 minutes – if we took the minimum polling barrier (400 seats=0.25%) that would permit parliamentary representation as results of the 2009 election reflect. The USA's barrier is (somewhat unfairly) 15% required in polling. The parties would also need to nominate presidential candidates before the debates.)

Bite-sized chunks of entertainment

Obama and Romney had to fit in complicated discussions about troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, how to deal with the Chinese impact on the American economy, job creation, trickle-down economics, healthcare, welfare and financial reform, states' rights, federal funding to women's organisations, terrorist attacks which killed US diplomatic staff in Libya and where the blame should go – all in 15-minute segments. SuperSport takes longer than that to go over a Currie Cup rugby match.

In fact, if anyone can fit their initial explanation of how to reform the healthcare sector to control costs while promoting coverage into the amount of time it takes to brush your teeth, I doubt its validity. In the time it takes to make microwave popcorn, we expect candidates to explain how to resurrect US manufacturing and other small businesses using the tax code and incentives. Pah!
The debates attempt to turn policy into bite-sized chunks of entertainment during prime time, which proper policy considerations are anything but.

Republican presidential candidate and former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said during his failed run that if he won the nomination, he would invite Obama to three three-hour "Lincoln-Douglas" style debates (modelled on the 1858 run-up to the US election between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas) which sound about as interesting as a beige bucket full of ditchwater being poured on the letters I don't read from my insurance company.

The two men would go in-depth with a few issues, rather than playing 90-minute Who Wants to be a Millionaire and hardly anyone would watch the whole thing. Quite frankly, if we're all as into listening to policy talk as we think, and don't want it packaged into the equivalent of finger foods, we'd constantly be watching the Parliamentary Channel (or in America C-SPAN).

No value for voters

The "winners" of the debates are also declared via incredibly shaky criteria. No one was in any doubt Romney won the first debate against Obama, but did so speaking some nonsense convincingly.

If you read the transcript, Obama made some solid policy arguments, but his flat tone and umming and aahing was steamrolled by Romney's energetic and superbly prepared performance.

In principle, these debates are not for candidates to win a Golden Globe (or handshake), but to allow voters to choose based on what policies they plan to implement during their presidency. Yet the terms prevent in-depth policy discussion, and the winner is often declared on style or partisanship.
There's no denying debates can prove useful. But under current rules agreed upon by the contestants, the criteria that determines who "wins" and the fact that there really isn't enough time or opportunity to discuss anything in depth, there is incredible room for improvement.
As things stand, there is value for the contestants, but not for voters. 

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer.

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