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Presidential debates should inform, not entertain, the voters

Presidential debates should inform, not entertain, the voters
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If the purpose of the first two Democratic presidential primary debates was entertainment, they were successful. Rather than exhibiting the dispassion and seriousness that an event of this magnitude deserved, the moderators behaved as if the debate were an episode of “Who’s Got Talent?” Public service records, accomplishments and experience in the civic arena seemed irrelevant. The focus, rather, was on who was able to get the most rehearsed lines into the dialogue. 

Then, after the show, came the pundits, many of whom never have been on the firing line of public service or policy deliberations, casting their opinions about the worth of the candidates. It was all good for television.

But was it good for our democracy? I am not sure that speed-dating with folks who have come forward to run for president of the United States is the best way to judge the candidates, or that their success or failure in attention-grabbing performances during, at most, 10-13 minutes of airtime is the best way to inform the citizens who will cast votes in the primaries and caucuses and then in the general elections.

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The candidates themselves are not to blame. Indeed, we should show our admiration for those who have chosen to step into brutal combat in the arena, when it is easier to sit outside and complain and cast judgment. 

But the format raises troubling questions. To the candidates, is the purpose of exposure to inform us or to entertain us? Do we care who has the best sound bite when leaving a major meeting with international leaders, or do we care more about who prevailed behind closed doors? Do we want someone who can impress a TV audience, or impress allies and adversaries? 

Does experience matter? Do we need to see the full range of the life’s work of a candidate, the record of educational successes and failures that he or she would bring to the presidency? It appears that those who have been in the political arena for years, those who are the most experienced in the nuances of policymaking, are at a disadvantage. A talented archivist can find a clip, article, or speech from three or four decades ago and hold it up as misleading evidence of where a candidate is today.  

What are we looking for in disposition? Do we want a melodramatic, bomb-throwing leader who is good at self-aggrandizement and has mastered the art of the low blow?  Or do we want a president who is capable of listening to the other side and admitting mistakes, and who knows when and how to make a decision?

Is a willingness to compromise now a disqualification for the presidency? Shouldn’t we respect and learn from those who have had to collaborate with those with whom they have vehemently disagreed? How did they compromise and what was the outcome? The ability to get results by working with adversaries is a sign of leadership, not weakness or lack of principle.

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If we want primary debates and presidential debates to achieve their purpose of informing the voters about candidates and their policies, we need to consider alternate formats.

One reform to consider is eliminating studio audiences. Ordinary citizens might be welcome in town hall formats, but audiences who cheer and jeer belong to the realm of infotainment, not civic debate.

We might also reconsider the TV game show format, in which all the candidates stand like game show contestants poised to press a buzzer. Why not have the candidates engage in thoughtful roundtable discussions on the basis of a few domestic and foreign policy topics offered by the moderator? The format should allow the candidates to develop their responses in depth, rather than feel pressured to toss out premeditated slogans. How would they respond to a particular issue or crisis? How would they seek and use information? How would they work with Congress and state and local governments, and communicate with the American people? 

These are the questions good interviewers would ask applicants in a job interview. Why not use this approach for applicants for the most important job in the world?

All of these questions are subsidiary to the biggest question of all: Do we want a president who reflects what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” or one who survives a gladiatorial combat that appeals to the dark side of humanity?

Angela Evans is dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. She previously served as deputy director of the Congressional Research Service.