Debate Season

It’s debate season. So soon? I have a secret confession: I want them to go away.

It’s not that I don’t like politics. I do. I am what political professionals call a “high propensity” voter, even visiting the voting booth for local elections where a handful of ballots sway the outcome. I follow current events. I have opinions about candidates. It’s just that political debates leave me . . . cold.

My cerebral political self wants to say it is because I don’t really learn anything about the candidates or their positions from watching political debates. After days of negotiating ground rules, the questions seem softball and the answers might just as well be read from the “issues” pages on the candidates’ web sites. But no, that’s not it.

My good-government political self wants to say that the business of political debates is unfair to the minor parties, locking marginal (yet important) voices out of the process by demanding they prove an unfair level of support before being allowed a ticket to the podium. But that’s not it, either.

My lowbrow political self wants to say it’s because the debates are boring affairs with stately blue backdrops, earnest statements, and-high minded rhetoric that cause my eyes to glaze over and the remote to drop from my limp grasp.

No, it’s none of that.

It’s this. At no other point in the political process do I feel more lied-to than at debate time.

It is widely agreed that candidate debates will not do very much to sway voters one way or another — yet everyone involved acts as if they are the critical point on which millions of decisions are hanging. It is widely understood that there is no real way to “win” a debate and such events are instead an elaborate high-wire act in which each side is hoping the other will make such an embarrassing mistake that they are seen to have “lost” — and yet the airwaves and news pages are filled with handicapping and recap as if the candidate-performers’ actions on stage were a microcosm of the campaign itself.

And, finally, it is widely known that many campaigns would rather not debate as there is almost no upside for a candidate and a great deal of downside if she or he makes a fatal misstep. And yet each campaign expresses, ad nauseum, a willingness to debate one another “on the issues” and for this to take place “anyplace, anytime.” Meanwhile, they take every opportunity that they can, grasp at any pretext around which they can build a case, to bow out on some principle or develop a scheduling conflict.

Sometimes it feels as if everyone involved is engaged in some kind of civic duplicity.

So why, oh why, do these spectacles continue? Prodigious amounts of volunteer effort and network airtime are spent in the pursuit this political kabuki. There are a host of smaller reasons but one large one: nostalgia. We pine for the yesterdays when our political leaders were fiery orators who could appeal to our higher selves in such a way that our higher selves might actually answer. We hear of some mythical set of whistle-stop debates between Lincoln and Douglass and presume that if Honest Abe did it then it must be the right thing.

And we hear from well-meaning civic groups and blue-ribbon commissions that debates are important and that we must keep them alive.

I do not recall ever having seen a time when the podium skills of a sitting president were the key factor in our nation’s success. Indeed, the best presidents have asked others in their employ to debate the possible policy options and decided from among the best arguments. The best presidents, to borrow an unfairly-maligned term, are among other things deciders. A debate will not tell me how well a candidate will be at deciding. At best it will give me a sense of how the candidate behaves. But even then, the odds are not good: Simply recall the Al Gore of the 2000 (stiff, hulking, sighing) compared with the real Al Gore of 2007 (passionate, funny, engaging).

This election, I will, like so many of my fellow Americans, try to make the best decision that I can. After all, voting is not to be taken as lightly as choosing between Coke Classic or Zero. I intend for my choice, made in secret, to bind my fellow citizens. That’s a big responsibility. I will seek out real interviews by real journalists of the candidates. I will watch as they file through the Sunday talk shows and the hosts try to pin them down on the issues. I will listen to them speak, learn their positions, compare them with my own.

I may even, despite all my protests, watch a debate. Such is the power of my desire to live up to the ideal of politics.

But I fear I may switch off at the end, if indeed I last that long, disappointed and sadly no wiser.

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