First we have the Theory of the Debates. This theory states that the two candidates will stand there and take turns responding to questions put to them by the moderator. Ah! Here’s our chance to hear them think on their feet; to respond dynamically to whatever is put up for discussion. This should tell us quite a bit about what sort of minds we’re considering for the Top Job.
So much for the theory. Here’s the Reality of the Debates: It isn’t a night for dynamic thinking, or even a night for debates, for that matter. It’s a night for speech making. There appears to be an agreement between the major parties that specific questions from the moderator may be ignored. This agreement extends to the media covering the event, because no one ever seems to come out and say, “Hey, wait a minute! You guys never answered the question! You wanna try again?”
Let me offer an imaginary example: Suppose the moderator tries to throw them a curve ball by asking something very specific, such as, “What will be the approach of your administration toward the expansion of executive powers?” I can pretty much guarantee that the specific question asked will receive about 10 seconds of discussion, if that much. What we hear will mostly be the candidates jumping to whatever canned speech they have that comes closest to the topic. Perhaps one candidate will quickly skip to a speech about the dangers that surround us in this uncertain world, and how ill-equipped his opponent is to handle these threats. Perhaps the other candidate will launch into a withering attack on the policies of the current administration and advise the American people of their opportunity to change the course of events come November. Maybe they’ll both veer off in some other direction, but note how the original question has been left receding quickly into oblivion. One thing for sure – we’ll get some nifty quotes and nicely turned phrases prefabricated by the speechwriters, with an eye toward having them show up in the next morning’s headlines. The declaration of the “winner” will occur based mostly on the political leanings of whoever is doing the scoring. At best, the winner might be determined by whoever delivers his lines with the best acting skill. But in none of these scenarios will the debate live up to its advance billing or advance description.
There’s no mystery as to why things have evolved this way. While there are occasionally politicians who excel at debate and relish the opportunity, I think it’s safe to say that the people who actually run the parties and campaigns HATE debates. After all, they seem to represent an opportunity for their guy to screw up; the risks are too scary and the benefits too uncertain. So they make a show out of pretending to have debates, and they use the prelude to them as an opportunity to accuse the other guy of trying to duck out of the debate. If you’re able to pluck out an actual nugget of new information from such an exhibition, treasure it. If you’re able to learn something truly new about either the guy you like or the guy you hate, then you’ve captured something rare. I wish all of us the best come November.