Presidents Don’t Debate

I did not watch either of the four debates between the multitude of candidates for the Democratic nomination for President. That is probably a strange activity for a person who follows politics and policy issues fairly closely.

I have a problem with these debates—aside from the fact they were occurring a year and a half before the election. Our process is so long—over a month between the first and second sets of Democratic debates. By way of comparison, it took only two months for Britain to “elect” and install Boris Johnson as Prime Minister after Theresa May announced she was stepping down.

But I digress. The problem I have with these debates is that they are inappropriate ways of selecting a president. I have objected to Presidential debates from the beginning as I disliked the idea of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which I watched.

A significant problem showed right away in the first debate. Most people thought Kennedy won the debate and hence the election. A key bit of data from that first debate is that most people watched the debate on television. Most people who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had “won.”

On television, Nixon suffered from his “5 o’clock shadow” and his “shifty” way of looking at Kennedy. So these two debaters were judged by their “come across,” not very relevant for presidential work.

I was provoked to address this issue by a segment of Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program last week. Under the heading, “Presidents Don’t Vote,” O’Donnell contrasted debating with what presidents do.

O’Donnell was privileged to see one person do the job of the presidency. He served as Chief of Staff to the Senate Finance Committee. In that role, he accompanied its Chair, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in many meetings with President Bill Clinton.

He described those meetings close to what those of us who follow such things already knew:
“The real work of the presidency is making decisions after being sufficiently briefed on the subject by people who have been working on that subject for their entire careers and know the subject way better than the President ever will. The President doesn`t have to sit there on his own trying to think of every relevant fact about a particular policy in 30 seconds, never. That`s not the job.”

O’Donnell asserted that President Clinton was better educated and probably smarter than most people in the room but did less talking than anyone. Mostly, he asked questions and listened to what policy experts had to say. Only occasionally did Clinton make a decision in the meeting. He usually made decisions later after conferring with his advisors about which policy approach to support.

These debates serve the interest of commercial television, not the public. Often they are arranged and conducted like sports entertainment where interviewers provoke candidates to go after each other and score points.

Successful television debates seem to generate heat but only a little light (information). Unfortunately, they will continue as they are part of the American political landscape.

Count me out. I watch real sports events.