Friday, October 21, 2016

No More Debates, Ever

by Neil H. Buchanan

The pundits and the public have weighed in on the final presidential debate of 2016, and it turns out that my conclusions (which I reached after my usual self-sequestering, so that I did not know about the emerging consensus as I wrote down my thoughts) were widely shared, with some important caveats that I will discuss shortly.

Most importantly, there has been nearly universal condemnation of Donald Trump's refusal to say that he would accept the results of the vote, even if (when) he loses.  Trump's surrogates spent Thursday frantically reassuring the world that their man is not that insane, but they have had only limited success (for obvious reasons).  But in any event, it is heartening to see the fierce reaction against Trump's flirtation with insurrection.

Still, the negative commentary to a large degree has missed the importance of Trump's arguments as to why the vote will be rigged against him.  Amy Davidson in The New Yorker and William Saletan in Slate were the exceptions in noting all three of Trump's claims: voter brainwashing by the purportedly liberal media, Clinton's ineligibility to run for President because she is supposedly a criminal, and the bogus claims of voter fraud.

By only paying attention to the last of those three delusions, most commentators made it too easy for Trump's apologists to say that he was merely reserving his right to request recounts if the outcome is close, or to raise legitimate claims of voter fraud.  Because that is not at all what he said, as I argued, nothing that happens between now and Election Day will resolve his supposed concerns.

But again, it is gratifying to see nearly everyone get the big picture right, and not just on the post-election insurrection issue, but more broadly.  Clinton won big, again, while Trump melted down and became incoherent.  Clinton handled herself with grace and class, while Trump exposed himself once again as a misogynist and bigot.

With all of that in mind, I nevertheless hereby call for the end of national presidential and vice presidential debates forevermore.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In the aftermath of a debate sweep that might have changed the course of human history, the wisest thing that we could do is to put an end to these dangerous spectacles.

To be clear, I love debating.  I spent many years of my early life participating in and coaching debate, especially parliamentary debate at the university level.

My unhappiness with the presidential debates, however, is not a matter of academic purism.  As Professor Dorf argued before this year's debates began, there is no reason why presidential debates should follow the structure of competitive college-style debating.  The problem is not the variation on some ideal format, but something much deeper.

Not only do I not think that there is a meaningful problem with the structure of the presidential debates, but I continue to think that debates can be a valuable tool.  In my reaction to this year's first presidential debate, I argued that "good debaters beat bad debaters," no matter the venue.  And it is important for the public to know which is which.

One reader responded to my argument by saying that he does not care who the better debater is between two presidential candidates.  Instead, command of facts and the ability to construct logical arguments is what matters.  This argument, however, suggests that there is a difference between being a good debater and being able to construct reality-based, reasoned positions on the issues.  In fact, there is no difference.

In his classic and essential essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell rejected the notion that a person can have good ideas without having the words to express them.  When someone says, "I know what I mean, but I don't know how to say it," most people sympathetically nod.  Orwell would say, "Then you don't really know what you mean."

Orwell's point is that the path between muddled thinking and muddled communication is not a one-way street.  That is, most people seem to think that unclear thinking will always lead to unclear speaking or writing, but clear thinking might or might not find its way into clear communication.  Orwell says that if you are not making your point clearly, then you do not have a clear point.

The practical implication of that insight is that we should be wary of politicians and their handlers who excuse sloppy communications as a mere skill deficit.  George W. Bush was not coincidentally a poor speaker.  He was a muddled thinker who did not care even to try to think through issues, and that became obvious any time he opened his mouth.

All of which means, again, that I should be arguing in favor of presidential debates.  Forcing candidates for the highest offices in the land to express themselves, and to respond to the arguments made by their opponents, is a fair and perhaps even irreplaceable method of allowing people to see who thinks clearly, accepts facts (and is aware of them), and can respond to criticism.

As I noted above, moreover, my favored candidate this year benefited enormously from the debates.  Although she has been ahead all along, her recent surge seems to have been triggered by the first debate, and everything has gone her way since then.

Given that I sincerely believe Trump to be an existential threat to constitutional democracy (to say nothing of the future of the world), why should I not be thrilled by the role that the presidential debates seem to have played in saving all of us from doom?

The problem, as I have noted over and over again for the past month, is that these debates are not judged by the important standards that make debating valuable.  After the first presidential debate, I was stunned to read that even left-leaning commentators had been scoring the first part of the debate as a win for Trump.

How was that possible?  As everyone now knows, Trump was simply lying his way through every aspect of that debate (as he did during the next two), and his supposedly compelling arguments about international trade during the first twenty minutes were backed up by neither evidence nor logic.  But, the commentators insisted, he was supposedly being persuasive and "connecting" with voters.

During the first half of the third debate, Trump was just as bad.  Asked about the Supreme Court, he could not even get himself to say clearly that Roe v. Wade would be overturned if he were to become president.  He attacked Justice Ginsburg for attacking him.  He said that Hillary Clinton would destroy the Second Amendment.

In other words, Trump was doing what he always does, inside and outside of debates.  He seized on issues that he knows nothing about -- for example, late-term abortions -- and repeated some things that he had read on some right-wing website about babies being ripped out of wombs the day before birth.  Truly uninformed nonsense.

Yet, as Slate's Jim Newell usefully points out, "Much of the post-debate conventional wisdom on cable news and the internet suggests that Donald Trump was having a fine debate for the first 50 minutes or so."  Newell strongly disagrees with that conventional wisdom, and so do I.  But what does this tell us about the conventional wisdom?

This is not merely a matter of Trump being judged against low expectations.  Instead, the idea was that as long as he was talking about issues, he was doing well.  It did not matter that what he said was fantastical idiocy, because he was talking about issues, which apparently sounded serious or presidential, or something.

Add in the punditocracy's core belief that Clinton is too wonky, and the result is a consensus that whenever the debates were boring, Trump was winning.  And this suggests that a Trumpian idiot candidate in the future who is not also a crazed megalomaniac could "win" these debates.

Do we need to remind ourselves again that this year's vice presidential debate was widely judged a win for Mike Pence because he did not seem fidgety, even though he spent the debate gaslighting the world about what Donald Trump has said?  (Pence on Trump's outrageous statements, in a nutshell: "That's nonsense.  He would never say that.")

As I noted after that debate, Pence benefited from the random reversal of pundits' belief that Al Gore had lost a debate in 2000 by being too condescending.  And Mitt Romney's lie-filled 2012 debate was deemed a win because he seemed to "command the stage," whatever that might mean.

From a purely partisan standpoint, then, liberals -- indeed, anyone who is horrified by the prospect of Trump becoming president -- should not conclude that Clinton's three wins validate the importance of presidential debates.  After all, Clinton has been leading all along, and much of what has damaged Trump (the partial tax returns, the "Access Hollywood" tape and subsequent accusations of sexual assault) coincided with the debates, but they would have happened in any case.

And from a nonpartisan standpoint, we now know with absolute certainty that there is simply no correlation between the valuable knowledge that debates can provide and the impact of that information on the political response to the debates.  These are high-stakes events that can turn on the most superficial of matters, and it is not even possible to know which matters of "style" will be deemed important at any given moment.  (Too angry?  Not angry enough?  Too analytical?  Not relatable?)

The good news is that, running as an incumbent in 2020, President Clinton will be perfectly positioned to suggest that the debates be abandoned.  No one could accuse her of being scared of debating, and if anything, she would seem to be giving up an advantage.

In the end, the presidential debates were a good idea that were defeated by the irresponsibility, laziness, and superficiality of our media's political reportage.  Substance almost never matters, and style only matters in unpredictable ways.  What could go wrong?

Right now, nearly everyone is expressing relief that this year's debates are over.  It would be even better if we never again had to anticipate these ridiculously dangerous events, or the mindless coverage that accompanies them.

13 comments:

Joe said...

I think it a good idea for both candidates to meet together and interact in some format even if it is not a "debate." We will learn from that experience and it would show one aspect of being President -- directly dealing with the other side. And, this will include some back/forth regarding the issues. On that front, big picture, I think there was some positives to the debates we had.

This will result in people supporting one person for dubious reasons, but so be it. People will have to put one single v.p. debate in perspective, even if they think one candidate "won" that event. And, some of that isn't totally bad. A President in our system does have to connect with the voters. If it wasn't by debate, it would be some other means. What does the debate in the end take away in that respect?

So, if the two champion debaters here don't want to call it a "debate," fine. But, the meetings -- whatever you call it -- should continue.

Shag from Brookline said...

Maybe The Donald will have a surprise on inauguration day at the new Trump Hotel on PA Avenue to point to himself as a winner (financially?) of his art of the deal with the Post Office. SNL might consider a spoof involving the hotel's 'UN-PRESIDENTIAL SUITE." (This is a "commons" suggestion to keep comedy going post Nov. 8th.) Hotel guests could include the "unattractive" women he groped who surfaced after the Trump/Bush tapes, sort of like a Trump counter beauty pageant.

But I would like to have the debates continue. Format/rules may need changing. If the debates are eliminated, Trump/Ailes TV Network (Foxes - Roosters? - in the Chicken Coop) will attack what's left of the Republican Party establishment.

Jon said...

Wholeheartedly disagree. The "debates" provided a glimpse into how the candidates prepare, deliver their preferred messages, perform under pressure, interact with opponents, and handle tough questions. There is no substitute, unless we bring in some regular Q&A sessions similar to Questions to the Prime Minister in the U.K. (And which of these two do you think could handle a tough round of PMQ?)

If the commentary and analysis is poor, the problem is with the journalists and pundits, not with the "debate". Demand better.

Martin Vermeer said...

It's an interesting idea, doing away with these debates -- by why only the debates? The silly and inconsistent criteria used by media and public to decide what makes a debater 'good' are similarly applied to whatever else the candidates say, do, or happen to be.

Arthur C Clarke suggested the president be drawn by lottery. I'm almost warming to the idea.

Greg said...

This strikes me as an astoundingly dangerous idea. Fundamentally, Prof. Buchanan is arguing one of two things, both of which basically amount to the idea that democracy as we know it is broken. (It may be so, but sometimes admitting something is more dangerous than the thing itself.) In one possibility, he is arguing that there is no informed populace who cares about the substance of the debate and the populace is choosing based on other factors that Prof. Buchanan finds inappropriate. Another slightly less problematic argument he could be making is that the media doesn't care about substance (either due to "media bias" or due to responding to what the people want) and is focusing purely on stylistic points.

Ultimately, it's one thing to SAY that the people don't care about the substance of the elections, but it's a whole different thing to start ACTING like it. Doing things like canceling the debates is a tacit admission that the people don't matter in the election, and really an admission that money is about the only thing that matters. If you're admitting that the elections are pointless and that the people aren't qualified to vote, why have elections at all?

It might be that the format of the debates is poor, but that just means that the format needs to be improved. Having the candidates respond to a presumably impartial moderator and espouse their vision is seemingly the minimum criteria for allowing the people to choose their leaders.

  said...

As I see it, the problem is the definition of "debate." It's not a "debate" when the candidates are allowed — even encouraged — to refuse to answer questions; to make false factual assertions that are not immediately refuted by an authoritative nonparticipant, such as a monitor/moderator/reference panel*; to resort to ad hominem attacks on matters irrelevant to the question/issue at hand; to evade critical issues because the organization/individuals injecting the issues into the debate are either coopted or ill-informed; and, perhaps most of all, to remove the candidates from their ordinary advice-seeking and decisionmaking process.

It's that last point that makes public-spectacle debates useless. Consider, for example, the Iran hostage 'rescue' fiasco, or — more recently — the bid Laden raid. Anyone who expects the President to have an immediate, articulate grasp of all the necessary details for even such limited operations is not only foolish, but insane. It's much more important to see how the President gathers information, from whom, and evaluates it. But that's not something that one can see in a debate or debate-like format.

* Who will still get some things wrong. For example, the entire "e-mail server" debate has evaded the "what, exactly, is classified — and what is supposed to be classifed?" predicate for understanding its significance in the first place. Virtually every commentator has silently accepted that what is marked with a given classification level (or not, as the case may be) exactly merits that classification level. Ironically, because they are in fact marked that way one wouldn't be allowed to show examples of misclassified material to anyone without both an active security clearance and a need to know so one could illustrate the point... and "need to know" would make any detailed appreciation of the proportion of misclassification virtually impossible.

Joseph Simmons said...

"One reader responded to my argument by saying that he does not care who the better debater is between two presidential candidates. Instead, command of facts and the ability to construct logical arguments is what matters. This argument, however, suggests that there is a difference between being a good debater and being able to construct reality-based, reasoned positions on the issues. In fact, there is no difference."

I stand by my statement! In some ideal world, a debate could have such value. But as the debate is actually performed and received, winning a debate does not depend on being "able to construct reality-based, reasoned positions on the issues."


Obama's sick burn of Romney on Russia ("the 80's called...") beat Romney's reasoned, and correct, identification of Russia as our greatest geopolitical foe. Clinton is permitted to be vague, cagey, and outright dishonest in a debate. Certainly she gets away more than she otherwise would because she is a better debater than a toddler (eg Trump), but that doesn't transform her responses into reality-based and reasoned positions.

Some people do have greater faculty with memorizing facts and figures or with slick phrasing. In a debate, such a person can do better than an opponent who is no less able to reason and construct an argument. With respect to Orwell, Trump makes many of his points very clearly. Clinton offers some substantive rebuttal but often slips into mere ad hominem attack.

As for the brouhaha on whether Trump will accept the results, it is making a mountain out of a molehill. What happens if Trump "doesn't accept" the result? Nothing happens. Democrats, including Gore, have never truly accepted the 2000 election. I do expect Trump to "accept" the results and I took his answer in the teasing tone it was delivered in. It would be alarming for a sitting president to say he might not accept the results of an election, but I'd still not fear the impotence of such a statement. Maybe I have too much faith in our democracy that we're not all going to stumble around as if in search of our red stapler the boss is holding onto.

I don't think your desire for Clinton, in 2020, to suggest that the debates be abandoned is wise. A sitting president should be compelled to get down on the same level as a challenger and be forced to face them and respond to them. Obama has built up the imperial presidency and that trend should be resisted. While so many rend their clothing over whether a candidate says in advance whether he will accept the results, they on the other hand advocate for expanding the powers and limiting the accountability of the ones actually in power.

Shag from Brookline said...

I've been voting in presidential elections since 1952 and have watched most of the debates under the system that began in 1960. Sometimes I got bored and would switch to something more interesting. Up to the debates this year, all of the candidates from major parties seemed well prepared. This year it's been different. What are the chances that in 2020 and thereafter a major party candidate will come to the debates in the manner of the Donald? The debates this year may limit such happening again. Before the 3rd debate, The Donald suggested that he and Hillary take drug tests as he had his suspicions about her. At the Al Smith dinner the day after the third debate, Hillary admitted she took a performance enhancer for the debate: preparation. If Hillary were indeed a nasty lady as The Donald said in the course of the 3rd debate, she might have added that The Donald could at least have brought along Preparation H for all the squirming he was doing behind the podium.

Eliminating the formal presidential debate forum would not eliminate a candidate challenging an opponent to a debate, with endless back and forth. Even an incumbent might have political concerns rejecting such a challenge. The system can't force a candidate to prepare in a serious manner for a debate, But future candidates can perhaps learn from The Donald's performance, whether enhanced or unenhanced.

Kaelik said...

"Trump makes many of his points very clearly. Clinton offers some substantive rebuttal but often slips into mere ad hominem attack.

...

Democrats, including Gore, have never truly accepted the 2000 election.

...

Obama has built up the imperial presidency and that trend should be resisted."

Just out of curiosity, in the alternative universe you live in, is Trump leading in the polls?

Joe said...

"Democrats, including Gore, have never truly accepted the 2000 election:

Gore accepted the result, even when in theory there was some means to still challenge the results in Florida. He didn't even let a single senator join twenty or so House members for a symbolic challenge of the results. The senators went along and only a few members of the House joined the failed challenge. Bush was allowed to govern, no impeachment etc.

But, he did not "truly" accept it in his heart or whatever. The two situations aren't the same either -- Gore didn't say the system was rigged BEFORE the election. And, there was an automatic recount in Florida. His challenge was how it should have went. If Trump said that (w/o the rigged stuff) upfront, it would have been quite different.

"Clinton is permitted to be vague, cagey, and outright dishonest in a debate."

Politicians are allowed to be "vague, cagey" ... as to "outright dishonest," multiple truthmeters said Trump was much more "dishonest." And, even there the analysis still cited cases where Clinton, per normal political practice, was somewhat misleading etc. She was not 'permitted' to do anything in that respect.

OBAMA did not "build" the 'imperial presidency' either. The presidency was quite powerful already. It can be "resisted" with or without debates by a range of means. Your conservative beliefs does not warrant this alternative universe. Trump is not suddenly less bad, Clinton so much worse because of ideological differences. The author of the piece himself has said he was more liberal than she is.

Shag from Brookline said...

I just finished reading Paul Volker and Pete Peterson's NYTimes OpEd "Ignoring the Debt Problem" that includes a reference to the 3rd debate on debt. This current post by Neil and his preceding post on the 3rd debate call for a response to the OpEd. Neil is an economist and perhaps may post on this OpEd. I imagine Paul Krugman is working on a response for his blog or his Monday column. I'm not an economist but generally defer to Krugman.

I bring this up because of the OpEd's critiques of how both candidates failed to respond to Chris Wallace's question in sufficient detail. The format of the debate allowed for two minutes response by each candidate, with several minutes for follow up discussion. This demonstrates one of the short comings of presidential debates. I do have a tax background that was vital to my law practice. This economics issue of debt cannot be effectively explained and views discussed in the short time allotted thereto. My experience with politicians is that their long term concerns focus on the next election. Consider that climate change has not been discussed to any significant extent in the three debates. Debt and climate change are long-term issues that most politicians will not address in significant detail. There are no simple solutions to these particular issues. Tax reform is discussed extensively but little real reform results; again, this is a long term issue. The debates can present sound bites but little by way of well thought out positions. Perhaps much of the voting public lacks the desire to be educated on these and other long-term issues, including the related income/asset inequality. Politicians need to spend more time on long-term issues. But they won't because they don't think it would get them elected/re-elected. Granted, the eyes of many voters may glaze over with discussion on long-range issues. But long range planning is necessary in a complex world.

We need presidential candidates who will focus on these long-term issues. Experts are required to analyze these issues and explain them so that more voters will understand them. And voters have a responsibility to pay attention. But the presidential debates cannot address well these long-term issues. Volker and Peterson's views on the debt problem may be outdated. Many changes have taken place since their heydays. They may be "austerians." I await responses to their OpEd.

Shag from Brookline said...

Paul Krugman has a post at his NYT blog on the OpEd noted in my preceding comment.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Shag helpfully points us to Krugman's blog post today. Here's one of several devastatingly on-point arguments from that post : "Put it this way: yes, it’s possible that we may at some point in the future have to cut benefits. But deficit scolds talk as if they offer a way to avoid this fate, when in fact their solution to the prospect of future benefit cuts is … to cut future benefits."

As Shag anticipates, I will indeed write more about this soon. For now, the simple bottom line (which doesn't even qualify as a spoiler alert) is that deficit mania is even less relevant than ever.