In Defense of Televised Presidential Debates

They're "excruciating at times," as one critic notes, but they're also one of the least artificial parts of modern campaigns

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Opining on presidential debates, historian H.W. Brands argues that "they might serve the commercial purposes of the networks and papers that air and cover them, but they serve the nation hardly at all."

Why does he think we'd be better off without them?

Here's one part of his argument:

Presidential debates have never revealed much about candidates' fitness for office... The essential qualities for a candidate are physical stamina, verbal quickness and the ability to appear all things to all people. But presidents can take naps, they can avoid extemporaneous speeches if they want to, and they need to say "no" more often than they say "yes."

Already that strikes me as inaccurate. For starters, presidents can't always take naps! And while George W. Bush could often avoid extemporaneous speeches, every president is forced to address the domestic and international press on occasion. Bush's poor communication skills surely hurt his ability to do his job well. Isn't it good to know Rick Perry has the same weakness?

Brands goes on to assert that "candidates are rarely tested on the most critical quality required of a president: sound judgment on serious issues," and insists that "the debate marathon that has marked the Republican season so far has been especially unhelpful. This reality show of campaigning bears as little resemblance to real life -- in this case, the real life of responsible governing -- as reality shows typically do." But this year's debates have proved useful for a variety of reasons. We know that among the frontrunners, Mitt Romney has by far the most detailed policy knowledge of anyone on stage. Ron Paul has been able to reach a wider audience with a message that resonates among a subset of the GOP that the national party would rather pretend doesn't exist. As much as I marvel at Herman Cain's support, I cannot conclude that the folks rallying behind him would be better off dissatisfied with every last candidate because there was never a venue to discover the ones without pre-existing fame.

As Andrew Sullivan notes, "regardless of their limitations, exposing these candidates to hours of questioning does help inform us about who they are in an as uncontrolled a setting as we can imagine... They help show human beings in a few precious moments off-script. Their emotional temperament comes across. And that matters." To take Sullivan's reasoning one step farther, insofar as debates force presidential candidates to face questions in an unscripted setting to be viable, they don't just affect the folks running, they discourage a certain kinds of candidate from even entering the race because they know that they cannot win. This dynamic isn't an unmitigated good. It's a shame that nowadays an extremely untelegenic candidate can't win. But debates are a safeguard against the hothead and the fraud candidate who knows little, and hasn't the ability to operate under pressure or to think on his or her feet.

"Debates reward candidates for one-line zingers rather than thoughtful responses," Brands concludes, "and they condition voters to expect slogans for solutions to complex problems," but these are features of every aspect of a campaign. He adds that "intra-party slugfests like the Republican series drive discussions to the extremes, making more difficult the inter-party compromises that will be necessary to get the economy moving and the deficit under control." But the candidates who come across as uncompromising extremists are never the ones that win.

I'd like it if our debates were better -- if, for example, they involved more debating and fewer instances of moderators highlighting peripheral conflicts among the candidates. I'd ask different questions and experiment with changes in the format. But compared to stump speeches and campaign ads and interviews with local TV stations, debates are relatively informative, and at minimum force the people competing to be president to study up on the issues.

That's a good thing -- shocking as it seems, one of these people will win.

 Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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