Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Televised debates discourage intelligent discussion

Jerry Stratton, September 8, 2007

There’s been a lot of political talk about how Fred Thompson is making a mistake for having taken so long to officially start his campaign. For one thing, it puts him “behind” everyone who has been campaigning for months. For another, it means that he’s missing debates. I don’t know anything about Thompson yet, but I find it hard to get worked up over either issue: the campaign has started far too early, and if Thompson is the only one starting at a reasonable time, that’s a reason to support him.

Part of the problem is the once slow and now quickly speeding move to earlier and earlier primaries. The problem is that states took control over what should have been a purely private party function: choosing that party’s candidates. Having taken that control, states are now trying to take advantage of it in order to gain more perks from the candidates. (Which in turn is because another problem is that there’s so much money involved that pork is worth drastically gaming the system for.)

States should never have had control over private party functions. Michigan’s government should not be able to tell Michigan’s Democratic and Republican parties when to choose their candidates. Neither should the parties be able to use state money and state power for internal functions.

As for debates, I can’t see any use to them. They’re worthless for determining the quality of a candidate. They encourage an ignorance of facts and critical thinking. During our last debates, people actually complained that Bush “at times took a good 5 seconds to formulate his responses”. Silence doesn’t play well in debates, and that means thoughtfulness and taking time to think don’t play well. What plays well are the lightning-fast gotchas.

When I bring up my dislike for debates, the one argument everyone brings up is the spectre of imminent war. But, especially when war is imminent, I do not want someone who will make decisions the way debate questions are answered. A good president should keep competent people on hand whom they can consult; they should be willing to consult experts and examine the appropriate evidence and analyses. Most of what they should do cannot be done in a debate.

War was imminent when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; it still took a day to finalize the decision to declare war on Japan. And that was good! We should not enter a world war without a discussion. War was imminent the moment we discovered nuclear missiles in Cuba. It still took six days—including consulting with the people we’d be going to go to war against—to take a stand. When Kennedy saw the U-2 photos of SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba, he consulted with the Soviet Foreign Minister and viewed further photographs of Cuba to ensure that we did not risk nuclear war unnecessarily. Fortunately, and probably because we took the time to gather multiple opinions and facts, the imminent war did not actually occur.

Debates, on the other hand, require answering quickly with only a plausible recourse to everyone knows and the ability to quickly jump on any missteps of others in the debate. Imagine the Cuban missile crisis in a debate form:

“Next question, Mr. President. Two minutes. The military hands you photographic evidence of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. What will be your response?”

“Jim, I’d call the Russian Foreign Minister…”

It wouldn’t matter what came next, his opponent would crucify him. Debates don’t encourage measured responses.

Expecting our politicians to be able to respond with useful answers during a debate without any outside consultation requires them to develop poor decision-making skills. I’ve yet to see a political debate that stressed “these are only opinions that are expected to change once the facts come in”. Any politician who answered this way would be considered to have lost the debate—despite it being the best answer to most debate questions.

Further, none of the questions in any debate I’ve seen are of the kind that need to be answered quickly. They are the kind that need prolonged study, consensus-building, and discussion. Political debates end up being a feel-good exercise in trying to say the least in the most time.

I want debate answers to include facts, to reference the data those facts came from and their sources, to present the other people whose arguments influenced the answers. I don’t care how informed the candidates are if they can’t back up their opinions by telling me where that information came from and actually presenting those sources. And they can’t do that in a televised debate.

Answering questions cold has no relevance to who is the best choice in an election. I see no use whatsoever for the kind of decision-making that goes on in a debate. Debates are a spectacle designed to trivialize important issues. And they are counter-productive because they specifically select for candidates who bullshit their way through the decision-making process rather than act deliberately and responsibly.

The 2004 debates

For an example of a useless debate, I present the September 30, 2004 debate between George Bush and John Kerry. The format was 2 minutes for a response, and 90 seconds for a response to the other side’s response.

Do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States?

That was a worthless question; nothing was likely to come out of it that did not already come out in the campaign, and in fact nothing did. But how could you possibly answer a question like that in 120 seconds?

Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

Bush said the best thing he could:

No, I don’t believe that’s going to happen.

This is the worst kind of question possible: a generalization of a specific event following an unfinished election cycle. What can the candidate possibly say? Admitting to the possibility of loss is a gotcha moment. Even outside of the debate form, contingency plans and hypotheticals result in outrageous headlines.

“Colossal misjudgments.” What colossal misjudgments, in your opinion, has President Bush made in these areas?

Two minutes, Mr. Kerry.

Again, a question best answered, and better answered, outside of the debate form, where Kerry can be specific about those colossal misjudgments, can be specific about what those misjudgments meant, and can reference the data sources so that I can see exactly where and how he came to his opinions.

What about Senator Kerry’s point, the comparison he drew between the priorities of going after Osama bin Laden and going after Saddam Hussein?

Two minutes, Mr. President. This question reminds me of the old saw about “For ten points, please detail the history of the universe, starting from the big bang and ending with this examination.” Again, a question whose answer in a debate form is completely worthless.

As president, what would you do, specifically, in addition to or differently to increase the homeland security of the United States than what President Bush is doing?

Again, the two-minute response does not help us; it does not give us any useful information whatsoever that we did not already know from the campaign.

What criteria would you use to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq?

Possibly my favorite. Two minutes to answer a question that cannot possibly be answered until it is time to actually disengage. To the extent that it can be answered, it needs to be answered with reference to documents and people, and it needs to be answered with consensus among a variety of those involved in at least two countries. It is an extremely important question but one whose answer in the debate form tells us nothing useful that we did not already know.

Speaking of Vietnam, you spoke to Congress in 1971, after you came back from Vietnam, and you said, quote, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

Two minutes, Mr. Kerry. And don’t mention the Russian Foreign Minister or your opponent will gotcha.

New question, Mr. President, two minutes. You have said there was a, quote, “miscalculation,” of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq. What was the miscalculation, and how did it happen?

Great question, but not one for a debate. The answer did not help us in any way that we were not already helped from outside the debate, and better.

New question. Senator Kerry, two minutes. You just—you’ve repeatedly accused President Bush—not here tonight, but elsewhere before—of not telling the truth about Iraq, essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq. Give us some examples of what you consider to be his not telling the truth.

Two minutes, Mr. Kerry. And don’t misquote him even slightly, or he’s gotcha.

New question, Mr. President. Two minutes. Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?

The preamble says it all. Just like this one:

Speaking of your plan, new question, Senator Kerry. Two minutes. Can you give us specifics, in terms of a scenario, time lines, et cetera, for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?

Right. That’s a good question for a debate. Two minutes? Including time lines, scenario, “et cetera”?

Mr. President, new question. Two minutes. Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?

That is, in one hundred words or less, using yesterday’s storm as a guide, predict the weather for the next four years. But it did provide a nice gotcha for Kerry.

New question. Two minutes, Senator Kerry. What is your position on the whole concept of preemptive war?

Was Lehrer repeatedly noting “two minutes” because he thought the candidates had no short term memory, or to subversively point out how worthless these debates are?

New question, Mr. President. Do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran? Take them in any order you would like.

Jim was awfully nice to the president there. In two minutes, cover two highly complex topics, but you can answer the easier one in the first 30 seconds if you want. This was a perfect example of a question which can only usefully be answered with reference to other documents and other analyses. Even if the president could have answered that question in two minutes, it would do me no good because I need to see those other documents.

Senator Kerry, you mentioned Darfur, the Darfur region of Sudan. Fifty thousand people have already died in that area. More than a million are homeless. And it’s been labeled an act of ongoing genocide. Yet neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops.

Kerry’s answer:

Let’s talk about Iran. Oh, and you’re wrong, we are talking about it. But I can’t tell you where to look to prove that because a debate is a stupid format to answer a question like this, you ignorant slut.

Sorry, he only actually said the first two sentences.

New question, President Bush. Clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?

It’s bad enough campaigns are like this. I don’t need to hear it answered in a two-minute format. But it did give Kerry a chance to go after the pervert vote. Or was that just me dealing a gotcha?

If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?

Again, a question whose answer in a two-minute format I don’t care about. I want to see those documents, and more than just the book that he wrote.

All right. Mr. President, this is the last question. And two minutes. It’s a new subject—new question, and it has to do with President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him or are you—do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?

What changes? I wanted to see the president address each of those changes. But that’s not the kind of question you can ask in a format like this, nor is it the kind of answer you can give. Instead the president gave about the best answer that he could without insulting a once-major superpower; but it was an answer I could not care less about, and that wasn’t the president’s fault. It’s a problem inherent in the televised debate form.

For any question that a candidate hasn’t covered outside the debate, their ability to think up a quick answer in a two-minute format tells me nothing; at best it obfuscates the real issue, which is that they haven’t addressed this outside the debate. At worst, it provides a gotcha opportunity for their opponents and locks a potential future president into a hastily-concocted response.

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