Before the 2004 presidential debates recede into the vapors of history, let us tackle a criticism that has dogged these exercises in televised democracy since Kennedy met Nixon: that debates cannot be trusted because they prize style over substance. This assertion, which rears its head like clockwork every four years, misses the point. As the Bush-Kerry encounters once again prove, in TV debates style is substance.
Millions of viewers seem to understand this intuitively. Some 62.5 million of us watched the first debate, with the remaining two and the vice presidential debate each attracting around 50 million. Debates generate these big ratings for some of the same shallow reasons other live, competitive, big-ticket TV programs do: Like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, they feature familiar players, high stakes, a win/loss narrative structure, and the possibility that some unexpected plot twist will emerge to dominate the national conversation. But debates have the added capacity to drag the candidates off the campaign trail and out of their straitjackets.
Throughout their 44-year history, presidential debates have brought into focus the very character traits that campaign handlers strive to conceal -- disengagement, shiftiness, social ineptitude, intellectual inferiority. By the time nominees reach the general election phase of the campaign, these personal characteristics may already have taken root as vague perceptions in voters' minds. Observing the candidates under the microscope of a presidential debate can either validate or dispel the impressions.
In this year's town hall event in St. Louis, an audience member asked President Bush to cite three mistakes he had made. Bush's unwillingness to respond told viewers something they may already have suspected: that this chief executive subscribes to a theory of presidential infallibility. In the same debate, Sen. John Kerry joked that of all the people in the room, only he, Bush and moderator Charles Gibson would benefit from the tax cut for the wealthy. In effect, Kerry was relegating the town hall audience to the social status of hired help, making assumptions about these citizens that confirmed his supposed attitude of high-handedness.
As these examples indicate, the transaction that occurs between voters and candidates in a televised presidential debate closely resembles the judgments people routinely render about each other in their day-to-day dealings. We evaluate debaters using the same tools we apply to family members, co-workers, new acquaintances and romantic interests, collecting and interpreting data from facial expressions, body language and personal vibes. Bush's much-remarked-upon smirks and grimaces in the Miami debate set off alarm bells with some TV viewers, just as they would have if Bush had been sitting across from you in an office. Kerry's stilted hand gestures and labored locutions called to mind a self-absorbed professor, unaware that half the students in class have stopped listening to the lecture and are checking their e-mail. In both cases, the debaters conveyed information about themselves that transcended words.
As the sole moments in a presidential campaign when the candidates share a stage, debates serve another key purpose: They are joint job interviews. As in any job interview, the participants arrive scrubbed and polished, eager to project the best versions of themselves they possibly can. No employer can ever be certain whether an applicant will fulfill the promise of his interview, any more than voters can be certain a candidate will live up to his campaign promises. But does any predictive mechanism work better than human instinct?
From the outset, critics of televised debates have lamented that these events hold little relevance to the job of being president. Though debates are not directly analogous to life in the Oval Office, they demonstrate with remarkable clarity how individuals acquit themselves under enormous pressure. Audiences have the rare privilege of watching the candidates performing live over an extended period of time, not sliced and packaged into 10-second sound bites. Before the largest audiences of their careers, debaters stand devoid of handlers, devoid of trappings, devoid of note cards. This may not replicate precisely how a president functions in office, but it does show how well the participants roll with the punches. At a time in our country's history when unexpected events loom so large, this ability becomes particularly germane.
Moreover, debates offer a useful preview of how a candidate is likely to communicate if elected. This is no small matter. When a president pleads the case for war or consoles the nation in time of tragedy, he does so through the medium of television. Debate performances foreshadow the communication style a candidate will carry into office. John Kennedy's fluid presentation in the 1960 appearances with Richard Nixon flowed directly into his live televised press conferences as president. Ronald Reagan's lofty language in the 1980 debate became a familiar rhetorical device over the next eight years. Bill Clinton's empathy with the citizen-questioners in the 1992 town hall forum presaged his touchy-feely style in office. Debates allow us to see whether the person we are inviting into our lives speaks a language we understand.
Which brings us back to 2004. A troubling message that came through during these encounters is that neither Bush nor Kerry appeared to enjoy his experience in the debate arena. Part of the success of politicians like Reagan and Clinton was the pleasure they took in performing for the crowd. In Bush, debate audiences saw a man apparently resentful at having to put on a show. Kerry, while not resentful, seemed to humorlessly pursue his own courtroom drama, a competent B-list player who never quite caught fire.
By no means are TV debates perfect vehicles. The test they pose is in some ways a false one. In a debate the would-be president stands alone; in real life his work is collaborative. Missteps are blown out of proportion. After a disastrous first debate in 1984, Reagan swept away questions about his fitness for office by joking in round two that he would not make a political issue of his opponent's "youth and inexperience." Though Reagan proceeded in that second debate to deliver a meandering, incoherent closing statement -- more or less confirming the doubts he raised the first time around -- press coverage focused almost exclusively on the wisecrack.
And there's another problem. Because campaigns arrogate for themselves the staging of presidential debates, the events are designed not for maximum voter enlightenment but for maximum candidate protection. This year's formats, famously negotiated in a 32-page "memorandum of understanding," imposed so many restrictions that they nearly sucked the life out of the debates. In the first and last programs, for instance, Bush and Kerry stood 10 feet apart, like Miss America contestants in their glass-walled isolation booths. Strict time limits, enforced through a system of colored lights more confusing than homeland security threat levels, made for choppy pacing. Citizens in the town hall forum awkwardly read their questions from cards, then suffered the indignity of having their microphones cut off lest they attempt to ask a follow-up question. Not surprisingly, shots of the town hall audience showed a group as stone-faced and inscrutable as a jury in a criminal trial.
The stultifying process of candidate preparation has similarly drained the spontaneity out of debates. Because these productions can be so perilous, the leading men become afraid to trust their instincts. How refreshing it would be if a presidential debater walked onto the stage and simply talked to voters. As evidenced by both Bush and Kerry, the language of the candidates' responses is so market-tested that it gets repeated word for word from one program to the next -- even within a single debate, as if viewers won't remember that they heard the phrase "I have a plan" five minutes earlier.
Nevertheless, in a fundamental way, American politics sorely needs these infusions of drama. One reason millions of citizens have disengaged from the process -- young voters especially -- is that they perceive electoral politics as boring. Annoying, largely uncreative campaign commercials, coupled with superficial press coverage and overly choreographed campaign events, have rendered presidential races needlessly dull. As the only stops on the campaign trail that cannot be totally foreordained, televised joint appearances offer insights into something the public too rarely gets to see: the human side of the candidates.
Debates could be even more revealing if politicians were willing to loosen the reins. Voters deserve to see less ritualized formats -- for instance, why not allow the participants to question each other? Or devote a debate to a single topic? The role of the moderator also merits another look. In a society as diverse as ours, it might be advisable to fill the position with someone other than a Washington journalist. The town hall debate, traditionally an audience favorite, could be strengthened if the questioners were allowed to follow up and hold unresponsive candidates to account.
After the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote glowingly of television's capacity to act as a "truth machine." Five decades hence, society has grown more cynical about television, and appropriately so. Still, despite the faults and limitations of TV debates, they remain the best vehicle voters have for judging the candidates minus the filter of handlers and the press. At their worst, debates are artificial, tepid and constrained. At their best, they turn every voter into Toto, tugging back the curtain to reveal the human being behind the smoke and mirrors. Is such knowledge as consequential as the candidates' stand on substantive issues? No. But any information the would-be presidents don't want us to have is information worth having.
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