More pros and cons of the modern debate format

In my previous post I summarizes some of the “highlights” of Alan Schroeder’s Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV. His concluding chapter outlines the pros and cons of the modern debate format, as he sees them.

THE BENEFITS

  • In an era where presidential campaigns are incredibly micro-managed and scripted, live debates are one of the few opportunities that voters have to see the candidates “in action,” specifically how they respond to unanticipated events. In effect, debates are like “job interviews” for the candidates that give us the opportunity to show how they can perform under pressure.
  • They are “the only even on the presidential campaign trail untainted by money” (288). No amount of money can “upgrade a candidate’s performance” or get a better set of “ground-rules.”
  • They possess “an aura of civic virtue” (289).
  • They are very educational to the voting public. Most voters don’t start paying attention until a few weeks before the election and for many, this is their only exposure to the candidates outside of campaign ads. Studies have shown that voters are able to correctly describe candidate positions after watching debates (290).

THE LIMITATIONS

  • They tend to emphasize style over substance. It was once argued that Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson all would have performed very poorly in our current debate format.
  • Debates allow for a maximum of 4-5 minutes of discussion on any given issue. This encourages over-simplification on the part of the candidates.
  • The sorts of skills needed for to be a good debater are arguably not all the same sorts of skills needed to be a good president. Debates are won by those who are quick on their feet and can memorize one-liners. Governing requires “time, improvisation, and compromise with opponents” (295). 
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