Elizabeth Drew is an author and political journalist.
As the first of three scheduled presidential debates approaches, we’re about to go through what has become a quadrennial misconception about how to choose our president: that debates are an especially valuable way of helping the voters make that fateful decision.
Given the tremendous emphasis the media place on this contest, an hour-and-a-half-long question-and-answer session supplants months, if not years, of presenting oneself to the public. This year, the buildup of the debates has exploded beyond all reason. For weeks we’ve had breathless report after breathless report about how the candidates are preparing. Each nugget — who’s at the preparation session, who’s playing the role of the opponent? — is treated as Highly Significant Information. For whatever reason, the media have decided that the first of this year’s three planned debates will be the decisive one. (Donald Trump, as is his wont, has introduced some uncertainty into whether he’ll participate in all three.) And let’s face it: A great deal of this excited anticipation arises from the expectation that Trump will put on a good show.
The debates test qualities that have virtually nothing to do with governing. Governing requires thoughtfulness, study, depth, patience, the ability to draw the most useful information out of advisers and arrive at the wisest policy. Consider the qualities that enabled John F. Kennedy to prevent the discovery that the Soviets had stationed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba from escalating into a calamity. During that tense showdown, Kennedy most definitely didn’t utilize his considerable wit and zealously avoided publicly humiliating Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet employing wit and one-upping an opponent are the two qualities most prized in the debates.
Worst of all, the supposedly most important thing that happens in a debate is a candidate delivering an effective one-liner. Now, we all know, or should know, that the one-liner has most likely been proposed by the candidate’s advisers and that it has been rehearsed. It has all the spontaneity of a can of tuna. And it has nothing to do with governing. It’s nice if a president is clever, but that’s not required. Bill Clinton was one of the most effective communicators we’ve had in the Oval Office. But Clinton isn’t witty. In fact, verbal cleverness has been a rare presidential commodity. Barack Obama is witty, and he has great comedic timing, but that wasn’t what enabled him to win the presidency twice.
Yet the night usually goes to the deliverer of the best one-liner. It’s what is most anticipated and most remembered. Actually, the first televised presidential debates, between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, were nearly devoid of one-liners. Now they’re the be-all and end-all of the encounter. What a weird way to decide who should be president.
Probably the most famous one-liner in modern debates was challenger Ronald Reagan’s saying to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, “There you go again.” Carter was raising a real issue: Reagan’s opposition to Medicare and Social Security when he was governor of California. No matter — that one sentence blew any discussion of those issues away. Reagan also scored the runner-up: his attempt, on seeking reelection in 1984, to dispatch questions about his mental acuity after one of his responses during the previous debate wandered down the Pacific highway. Reagan dealt with this potential block to a second term by saying of his nearly two-decade-younger challenger, former vice president Walter Mondale, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale, stricken with the knowledge that Reagan had landed a decisive blow, managed to force a laugh. The line wasn’t especially clever, but the former actor was able to deliver it well enough to quell questions about his capacity to serve for four more years.
Then there’s the media’s determination to declare a “winner.” Because these aren’t real debates, there’s no way to score them. I’ve participated in two debates, and when asked afterward who I thought had “won,” I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t and still don’t see these events as something someone “wins” but at best as a way for the voters to see the finalists side by side and decide which one they prefer. But familiarity with the candidates isn’t something we’re lacking this year. To hand the evening — and the presidency — to the person who “won” a non-debate makes a mockery of our democratic system and the gravity of the choice the voters face.