Presidential Debates Are a Joke

They have become the intellectual centerpiece of Presidential campaigns, yet the skills required to be a good debater have little to do with making good decisions as a chief executive.

In a debate, glib is good. Sticking to your talking points no matter how inane they are is a big point getter. Having the ability to never actually answer the question that is asked, but instead prattle on about whatever topic you think will make people dislike your opponent(s) gets you big points for “being on message”.

Delving in depth into policy is bad, although usually it is also impossible as your opponent is not going to answer any really telling question. From Nixon losing his debate against Kennedy because he had an inexpert make up job to George W. Bush doing well in debates against Al Gore because, against expectations, he was able to put sentences together in a coherent manner, debates have been distractions from really investigating the skills a President needs.

But the media love debates. It gives them ratings and talking points for weeks. So the media lets the candidates dictate the rules. Candidates who are likeable, even if not prepared to be President, like debates because when their understanding on a topic is weak they simply go off on a tangent and ignore the actual question.

Debates made some sense when Lincoln was debating Douglas, in a time where information about the candidates was limited. They make no sense in the modern world where information about just about anything is readily available.

As the world’s exemplar democracy, we need to do better. We could start by boycotting the current debate formats unless they are restructured to make candidates answer the questions they are asked to the satisfaction of the person asking the question. Better yet, let the candidates ask each other questions by creating a new format — and require answers to address the question to the satisfaction of the impartial moderators — like www.theidp.org.

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