Do Debates Matter, Ctd

by Jonathan Bernstein

I enjoyed Alex Massie's response to my response to his comments on the upcoming Brit debates.  I hope he doesn't mind if I go one more round.

I'm not sure that we do disagree (and if if I mischaracterized his views, I definitely apologize).  I too think that American presidential debates are overhyped silliness even less appropriate for the British system.  As he says:

Consider the 1992 Presidential debates. About the only thing that anyone remembers is George HW Bush looking at his watch. An awful lot of guff and pop-psychology was extrapolated from that single second. Did it help the electorate make an informed choice? Not really. At least not in any substantive fashion.

And that's fine. What I object to is the pretence that these contests are actually debates in which rival candidates demonstrate their prowess or moxy or whatever. They're nothing of the sort.

I agree!  But I also don't really think there's much at stake in calling these things "debates."  I remember that Dan Rather used to be really cranky about that, refusing to let that word pass his lips.  I never understood why he cared.  As for debates revealing character of the participants...well, I agree with that too, but it's not as if press coverage of elections (at least in the USA) focused narrowly on "prowess or moxy" are restricted to the debates; that sort of stuff dominates political coverage, regardless.  Alas, but again: what does it have to do with debates?

At any rate, I think we both agree that presidential debates have been useless at doing any of the things that the people who hype them say that they can do, and that as useless they are at those things in America, they're likely to be even worse at them in Britain.

I do want to add something about promises, however, because I think this is pretty important.  Politicians make lots of promises when they campaign -- some are on matters of public policy, some on process, and some on style.  Whatever voters may think, the evidence is pretty good that pols themselves take these things pretty seriously.  There is evidence (yup, from political scientists, but I'm afraid I don't have a citation handy) that pols tend to keep their promises...if you look at the data compiled by the folks at PolitiFact, Barack Obama has either kept, tried to keep, or is working on keeping almost all of his issue promises.  The style promises matter, too.  Let's see if I can find a good way to put this...remember the Beer Summit?  I'd say that Obama got in trouble with his initial remarks about that episode because he was perceived as having made a promise to be a certain type of president -- a certain type of black politician as president, and his remarks verged on breaking that  promise.  I'm not sure whether, in that instance, the press correctly interpreted Obama's promise (and this stuff does get tricky, because unlike issue promises candidates are rarely explicit about this type of promise).  But the idea is that all promises candidates make place constraints on them, even if voters don't actually believe those promises.  And so I do think that one benefit of debates is that, by focusing the attention of the political world on the candidates, the promises (issues and style) that that case about the most get the most attention, which in turn places the most severe constraints on them should they want to break those promises.  Which, of course, they may do, as we've seen with Obama in cases such as the Armenian genocide or the business of conducting health care negotiations on CSPAN.

I do think that centralizing the campaign for a few hours is probably less important in nations that are smaller than the US, nations that have shorter election campaigns, and nations that have a closer connection between formal, written party platforms and actual promises by the top candidate.