The closest that this blog comes to a pose of assertive contrarianism is its consistently dismissive attitude toward the staging of televised debates in presidential campaigns. Debates are a well-established quadrennial tradition that are often treated as sacred rites of civic virtue; self-righteous outrage predictably ensues upon any suggestion that a candidate might or should refuse to participate. The political world is filled with people who are invested in puffing up debates, many of whom were no doubt captains of their high school debate teams. But there's a pretty strong case that their actual value to the democratic process is often zero and sometimes negative.
There are two main problems with debates. First, they are framed in advance as valuable exercises in political deliberation and public edification even though they are actually treated as a form of entertainment and as one more arena of partisan competition. Second, the media commentators whose interpretations affect public perceptions of the outcome often decide who "won" and who "lost" on fairly silly grounds. Cracking a pre-written joke, sighing into a microphone, having too much on-camera energy or not enough—are these really the moments upon which the leadership of the nation should properly turn?
If debates are here to stay, which they are at least until a future candidate is bold enough to boycott them, they could at least be smartened up a bit. Here are three specific areas that could badly use improvement:
1. Before the debates: ignore campaign spin.
Maybe Trump didn't play the spin game well. So what? There's no good reason why independent observers' judgments about debate performance should be shaped by whatever the nominees or their flacks say beforehand. (And note the recent Washington Post story quoting anonymous Democratic sources trying to lower expectations in their own way by claiming to worry about Biden losing his temper in response to Trump's provocations.) The excessive importance of prior "expectations" means that debate participants are often not compared with each other, but are judged instead against the caricatures of themselves that already exist in the minds of media analysts. Indeed, if Trump were simply to behave 30 percent less combatively than normal tomorrow night, he would earn some of the best press coverage of his entire presidency even if his performance were otherwise unmemorable.
2. During the debates: ask questions designed to illuminate important subjects for voters, not just play gotcha with candidates.
Debate moderators sometimes fall into the practice of choosing what they think of as "tough" questions: questions that try to catch a candidate in some kind of exaggeration or hypocrisy, or that effectively restate whatever attacks the opposition is making at the time. There is a place for such questions. But they seldom produce interesting responses, in part because candidates anticipate them and rehearse a deflection, and the debate can easily become stuck on a topic that doesn't ultimately have much to do with the job the participants are seeking.
Intended "gotcha" questions should be better balanced with more open-ended, less overtly antagonistic questions that invite candidates to envision the future as well as defend their past, and that focus as much as possible on the presidency's actual powers—which are more expansive in the realms of foreign policy and public administration than in the well-trod ground of legislator-in-chief—as well as its limitations. If debates are to be a kind of public job interview in which the audience actually learns something about the applicants that is relevant to their potential future responsibilities, the questions need to reflect what the job actually is. And any "fun" or "unconventional" question—"what do you do to relax?" or "can you say something nice about your opponent?"—is always an insulting waste of time, a smarmy condescension to Middle America in the guise of artificial folksiness. (Whenever regular citizens have the opportunity to address presidential candidates, they nearly always ask questions that are serious and policy-focused.)
3. After the debates: coverage should focus on what was said, not how it was said.
The history of debates is strewn with supposed candidate gaffes, but very few of those identified by media critics involve truly troubling mistakes—the misstatement of an important fact, the outright smear of an opponent, an insensitive remark directed towards a social group. From Richard Nixon's physical appearance to Mitt Romney's inelegantly-phrased description of his governorship's female staff recruitment efforts, nearly all of the best-remembered debate "blunders" over the years remain firmly at the who-really-cares level of substantive importance. Even the ability of a candidate to recover from a "bad" performance in one debate with a "good" showing a week or two later, as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all did in their re-election campaigns, merely proves how unreliable it can be to judge potential presidents based on their personal demeanor in any particular circumstance. Besides, we already know plenty about what kinds of people these candidates are. Let's focus on what they say they will do.