Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Defense of the Shallow: Why Watch the Debates?

Just before the debates began I tweeted: “Another debate, do I have to watch it? I don’t want to be a policy wonk anymore.”

Of course I watched it. I can’t say I learned much, but I watched it.  If you must know, I thought Obama won, but not in a blowout – not be enough to really change anything.  Also, the questions seemed pretty stilted to Obama – disaffected Democrats asking to be inspired.

But what are the debates really all about?  Do they really give the American people a hard look at policy positions?  I doubt it – people have a pretty good sense of the candidate’s policy positions and, more importantly, the broad policy preferences of the two parties.  Individual’s fundamental prejudices (not a negative thing – just their understanding of how the world works) don’t tend to change much and the debate gives little opportunity for it to do so.

The Presidential campaign is a very long audition for a job.  The debates are that final interview question: “Is there anything you would like to tell us about yourself?”

The purpose of that question is the interviewer's last ditch effort to figure out, quite simply, if you are crazy.

I don’t necessarily mean clinically (don’t mock mental illness) but are you a person who has difficulties that are going to introduce a negative factor into the workplace - say not do the job, feud with co-workers, steal etc?

In a sense that is the question the debates are asking – they are a chance for us to get a really good look at the people who want to lead us and get a sense if they are “okay.”  That’s why the 1984 debates, for example, were so important.  Reagan had had an impressive first term, but in the first debate he seemed pretty off.  He pulled it together for debate two – but if the President had actually become senile, well that’s the kind of thing we’d want to know.

Much of the Presidency is performance, and we need to know the candidate can perform.  It may seem shallow, but sometimes surface matters.  The 1960 debate famously highlighted handsome, youthful Kennedy with the awkward Nixon.  Shallow, yes, but it turned out to be pretty right – there was something off about Nixon – as we learned a bit later.

For most of the debates I’ve seen both candidates managed to perform well enough to show that they weren’t way off.  Interestingly there were no debates between 1960 and 1976 – elections won by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  Off-hand these were two of the most deeply flawed individuals of the modern Presidency.  Shallow judgments perhaps, but not valid nonetheless.

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