When I was in high school, and a little bit in college, I took a few turns in my school’s debate club. It was fun, since I like arguing, but I ended up drifting away from it for a couple of reasons. One, I wasn’t that great at it. Two, it turns out that figuring out an objective way to score an argument ends up taking a lot of the fun out of it.
I’m thinking about this because we’ve reached that time in every presidential campaign where I remember why I hate the debates. It’s not that the debates themselves are bad — they’re not great, but they really are the one of the best chances you get to see the candidates argue for their ideas. What bothers me is that the ideas are generally the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.
A couple days ago, the New York Times put up a video of 12 memorable debate moments going back to 1960. And the depressing thing is, maybe two of them have anything to do with policy — and they’re when Gerald Ford mixed up Eastern and Western Europe and Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third agency he wanted to eliminate. Worse, if you were going to pick a great issue-related debate moment, I can maybe think of one.
Going back to that debate in 1960, which Kennedy apparently won by looking better on television, candidates have won debates less by making compelling arguments than by looking good while doing it. Partly this is because you don’t become a presidential nominee in the first place without having a good grasp of the issues and being at least a decent communicator, but partly it’s because the debates aren’t really designed to be informative.
The Lincoln-Douglas format, which I used in debate club and is similar enough to the approach used for presidential debates, is ridiculously over-structured in order to make sure both sides get time to present their arguments and poke holes in their opponents’. It has virtually nothing in common with the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which the candidates basically took turns delivering huge speeches, and it’s scored based on how many points each debater raises that the other side fails to rebut. In short, you’re mostly rewarded for talking fast and having a lot of bullet points.
Presidential debates are actually worse. Instead of debating one issue, they have about 20, and there’s no scoring system at all. So most of both candidates’ points go unanswered, and the voters — who’ve basically been delivered a fire hose worth of talking points with no clear way to sort through them — just go with whoever seemed to come off better.
I’m not a typical voter, because I’ve already spent an inordinate amount of time watching President Obama and Mitt Romney speak, and they both did about what I would have predicted. Romney’s arguments had fewer specifics than I’d expected, but his tone was also more accommodating. Obama’s performance was actually a lot better than I’m used to after four years of watching his press conferences, but he didn’t say much worth writing home about. If I were scoring the debate, I’m pretty sure Obama won on points, as Romney leaned pretty heavily on generalities and positions that didn’t really make sense together — and Obama’s strongest moments were the couple of times when he pointed that out — but apparently no one judges these things on points.
The other thing the presidential debates have in common with the ones I got tired of in school is that the moderator is basically a non-factor. If Jim Lehrer had actually been engaged in trying to get serious answers out of the candidates tonight, or if any of the debates’ other moderators did that ever, then voters might not only get a clearer sense of what they were actually talking about, but have some real way to judge what they were saying.