Presidential Debates Are All About Style

If there’s one aspect of the presidential nomination/election process that’s become increasingly important through the years, it’s the debates. Whether they’re the debates among the contenders vying for their Party’s nomination or the final debates between the presidential candidates themselves, there’s no question that the debates have taken on a weight and importance in the process that has seemingly transcended everything else. The debates are the best chance for the widest swath of the electorate to see and hear the candidates, to get a sense of their economic and domestic policy stances, their view of America’s place on the international stage and their long-range vision for where the country should head in the future. More so than retail politicking at the local level or random TV/Cable/Internet appearances and interviews, the debates are precisely scheduled and therefore well-known in advance, so a maximum number of voters end up watching them and forming their opinions.

Unfortunately, the debates offer little opportunity for detailed, accurate policy discussions and wind up being mostly a battle of appearances, verbal style, and clever quips. We nominate and elect the leader of the most powerful, important country on earth (and yes, we are the most important country on earth) largely on the basis of who can impress the unsophisticated, uninformed, barely-attentive swing voter with the snappiest one-liner.

With that as a backdrop, let’s look back on some memorable moments in national debate history.

1980 Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter -- After yet another meandering, vague, fantastical non-answer from Carter, Reagan paused for effect with the impeccable timing that came from his professional performing background. With a look that combined astonished disbelief and total disregard in perfect combination, Reagan looked derisively at Carter and said, “Well, there you go again.” The election was decided then and there.

1988 Vice Presidential Debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle -- Bentsen, at 68, was stodgy in appearance and stiff in front of the camera. He feared he’d look like an old relic compared to Quayle, who was handsome, relaxed, and youthful. But Bentsen and his handlers knew that Quayle had invoked JFK in his campaign stops, citing their similarities in age and energy as evidence of fitness for high office despite their youth. Bentsen worked out his now-famous retort well in advance and waited in the desperate hope that Quayle would mention Kennedy. He did. And so begat, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Ultimately, the line made no difference in the election, since George HW Bush handily trounced Michael Dukakis 426-111, but Bentsen’s answer was perhaps the ultimate debate rejoinder of all time.

2000 George W. Bush vs. Al Gore -- Gore was a studious, detail-oriented policy wonk, with a measured and calm demeanor. Bush was a notoriously tangle-tongued public speaker, someone not thought to be Gore’s intellectual equal.  Pundits thought the debate would be a mismatch, an embarrassingly lopsided win for Gore. But Gore, his low opinion of Bush all too obvious, rolled his eyes and sighed constantly and audibly throughout the debate in a condescending and dismissive manner, reinforcing Gore’s negative image as a stiff, haughty, supercilious nerd. The actual verbal substance of their answers became a non-issue; Gore’s disrespectful behavior is what made the lasting impression.

The 2019-20 Democratic debates are following this same pattern. There is so little in the way of actual policy differences among the candidates that they have resorted to trying to stand out on the basis of personality and verbal cleverness to distinguish themselves.

Elizabeth Warren’s recent rise among the hard-core Democratic base has more to do with her own focused, confident delivery and strong organizational grassroots efforts than it does with, say, Joe Biden’s obvious confusion and verbal trip-ups or any kind of deep analysis of differences between their respective policy proposals. Warren’s style is more sure-footed than Biden’s, hence her rise in the polls. The “winner” or “loser” of a debate is the one judged to have scored the most telling and destructive style points upon their adversaries since, again, actual policy differences amongst the Democrats are, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.

Is this how we should nominate a candidate for President of the United States? By putting 10 people on a stage and seeing who can make the most outrageous, unkeepable, totally outlandish promises? By seeing who can disrespect and insult the current President with the snarkiest language? These are mature, sophisticated adults, ready to command armed forces with over a million personnel and thousands of planes, ships, and tanks? These are deep-thinking, knowledgeable individuals with a wealth of real-life business and managerial experience, ready to tackle the challenges of handling a $16-trillion dollar economy, bolstered by their first-hand, deep-rooted understanding of complex economic concepts like the Laffer Curve and Debt Service Coverage Ratio?

In reality, none of these putative “leaders” likely has the slightest idea of what the difference is between a high-explosive shell and an armor-piercing shell or the impact that full employment has on wage growth. There is actually a formal definition of “full employment,” and it would be the long-shot of the century if any of these Democratic candidates could recite it. Instead, the vast majority of Democrats and Independents who vote in the primaries will make their selection based mostly on the best stand-up style comedic zinger they happen to remember one of these people say.

With the stakes higher than ever, we need to find a better way.

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