The dubious value of primary debates

Televised candidate debates have become the marquee spectacles of presidential campaigns. By the time Republicans vote in the Florida primary, candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination will have debated 19 times since May. That’s 30-some hours of live national TV, plus untold hours of recap, recrimination, chatter and miscellaneous noise churned up by the events.

Now, as somebody who deplores the larcenous rates commercial broadcasters normally charge candidates to reach the electorate, I’m glad. The debates constitute a grant of free TV time to hopefuls who might otherwise be priced off the air and out of the race.

But beyond that, since debates seem certain to be a feature of U.S. elections as far as the eye can see, it’s worth asking about how they affect the way elections are conducted and decided.

At the outset, a huge core fact: These debates are TV shows. They aren’t events arranged independently by candidates that the media then decide are newsworthy enough to broadcast. They are classic pseudo-events, in the late Daniel Boorstin’s memorable term — they happen only because they’ll be televised. Accordingly, media organizations far outnumber all other co-sponsors: Of this season’s 19 Republican debates, Wikipedia notes, four co-sponsors were foundations or universities, 12 were political entities, and 34 were media organizations.

That’s not new. The 2008 primaries, when both parties had fierce primary races, had 34 debates, according to a George Washington University website. The co-sponsors: 13 political groups, 14 foundations or universities, and 55 media organizations.

This co-dependency rests on warm and cozy mutual advantage: The candidates get to tee up their messages, the media get a self-replenishing source of quotable utterances. Broadcasters, who nowadays break less and less news, get a cheap and exhilarating chance to once again be a vital source of current affairs programming.

But to what effect? As a fan of this season’s GOP debates, I began wondering whether their overall impact on political discourse was, in partisan terms, absurdly one-sided. For months, hours of television time had been given to aspirants who agreed on little but their conviction that the Obama administration has been a disastrous failure.

There was no room for dissent on that fundamental premise. Debate protocol, obviously enough, enables candidates who are attacked to respond. But if someone egregiously distorted the facts about the incumbent administration, and nobody on stage thought they’d win any friends by correcting the distortion, the false assertion stood unchallenged.

Now, consider the cumulative impact of having dozens of hours of such lopsided discourse, in which the only push-back came from within the closed universe of a single party. It occurred to me that the overall consequence of such an intensely covered primary season, when candidates from one party vied before national audiences to run against a sitting president, might be powerful tailwind for the challengers and against the incumbent.

That seemed like an unintended, but fundamentally unfair, consequence of the media’s decision to stage an extensive series of televised events devoted exclusively to conveying the opposition party’s view of the world.

But perhaps the overwhelmingly partisan tilt to the debates is only part of the picture. There’s another reality: The debates, though unbalanced, may not actually help the would-be candidates. True, they ensure exposure. But debates are goofy affairs, they often devolve into bickering tit-for-tats that leave participants looking punch-drunk and diminished. The candidates mix it up gamely, for fear that if they don’t they’ll lower their scores among the commentators who will crown the winner, generally on the basis of such precision metrics as gaffes, body language, crowd reactions and a vague sense of overall vibe.

For the aspirants, the problem with the debates is basic to the format: They give visibility, but at the cost of stature. How can anybody offer a plan for world peace in 90 seconds? Instead, the challengers get to beat each other over the heads with rubber chickens, while the incumbent remains aloof, statesmanlike and presidential.

The last time a crowded primary field of would-be challengers faced a sitting president was 2004, when the opposition Democrats held a total of 14 debates before nominating Sen. John Kerry. And regardless of the powerful push you might think the Democrats should have gotten from their many hours of exclusive, one-sided air time, Bush carried 31 states and crushed Kerry.

The rampant proliferation of overcrowded candidate debates may provide the media with the names they demand to draw big audiences, but they don’t work as platforms for public illumination. They’re both biased and belittling, and cater to some of the worst features of our political discourse.

Other kinds of forums exist — roundtables focused on specific policy areas, for instance, or one-at-a-time encounters with knowledgeable reporters — that would let voters judge thoughtfulness and deliberation, not just facile repartee. This would be a good time for wiser heads in the media and political worlds to give these alternatives a road test.

Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly attributed the 2008 debate sponsorship totals to the Democracy in Action website. The actual source was a George Washington University site, as linked to above.



2 thoughts on “The dubious value of primary debates

  1. One other point is that the debates may actually improve the candidates ability to communicate. Obama admits, and others agree, that he was a far worse debater/speaker at the beginning of his series of 2008 debates than he was at the end. Hillary killed him at the initial encounters until he caught up with her. Thinking on your feet in front of a TV camera is not a bad skill for a president.

    1. Interesting point. They do have value, to be sure. I think you could also argue that they have weeded out some candidates by exposing their lack of preparation and the gaps in their knowledge base. Gov. Perry’s lapses, for instance, do seem to indicate basic deficiencies in his fitness for high office.

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