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Are presidential debates even helpful any more?

President Obama and Mitt Romney during an exchange at Tuesday's candidate debate at Hofstra University.
President Obama and Mitt Romney during an exchange at Tuesday's candidate debate at Hofstra University.
Shannon Stapleton / Getty Images

In the hours immediately following each presidential debate, a singular question dominates our national political conversation - who won?

With theatricality and candidate posturing on the rise in each new campaign cycle and meaningful dialogue having all but disappeared, the honest answer to the question "who won" has increasingly become - no one.

Consider the questions we would be mulling over at the water cooler if this year's debates actually contributed meaningfully to the political process.

  • What specific ideas did each candidate propose to resolve our most pressing national issues?
  • Who laid out a truly clear and compelling path forward?
  • What did we learn about each candidate's character and capacity as a leader?

In short, presidential debates could be productive encounters wherein potential national chief executives engage in useful dialogue, explain their positions, and listen to alternative points of view.

Instead, candidates squabble and poke at each other for 90 minutes, and the media and the electorate then score the debate as though it were a boxing match, quarreling pointlessly over which contender landed the most devastating blows. And even that argument, it turns out, is wasted effort.

Within minutes of the debate's conclusion, each campaign declares its candidate the winner, and the din of shrill partisan squealing quickly drowns out the handful of reasoned voices who attempt to draw our attention to the few relevant matters of fact and substance that might have surfaced.

In this week's debate as in most others in recent memory, each candidate carefully regurgitated his prepared soundbites in an attempt to woo the ever-elusive undecided voter, and as a result, the candidates consistently failed to engage each other or their audience, sounding instead like live versions of their own universally despised negative campaign ads.

Instead of worthwhile discussion about the merits of alternative Middle East policies, debate viewers were treated to semantic gymnastics and accusations of dishonesty relating to facts surrounding a recent attack on a U.S. embassy (shamefully politicized in the first place).

Rather than answer a direct question about who ultimately influences gasoline prices, candidates subjected viewers to an uncomfortable exchange about the veracity of the President's claim to increased oil production.

With the current structure of presidential debates, little, if anything, is gained.

So, who is to blame for the inefficacy of the debate process? The ample crop of ratings-hungry 24-hour television news channels are an easy enough target. Or maybe the devolution of the debates is a reaction to the rise of the instant information age. It's all Twitter's fault!

As much fun as it is to lay blame on the media or technology, in this instance it is likely that news outlets are simply responding to our demands, and the internet is reflecting our political mindset more than shaping it.

Perhaps blame can be rightfully placed at the feet of the candidates themselves? After all - they are the ones who skillfully evade answering even the most direct questions, while simultaneously twisting reality, bullying moderators, and disregarding the presumably agreed upon rules of the debate. Aren't the candidates at fault?

Maybe, but if you keep buying tickets to the circus, you can't blame the clowns for performing.

To understand how this historic element of our political process has deteriorated so badly, voters must look in the mirror.

The American electorate, like grade school children, is capable of participating in reasoned discussion, but we only reach cock-fight levels of enthusiasm when punches are thrown. Additionally, our notoriously short collective attention span engenders a disinterest in details and an overzealousness for theatrics, persona, and swagger.

So long as Americans respond better to partisan displays of machismo than to thoughtful ideas and relevant dialogue, the candidates who want to energize us (which is to say - capture our dollars and our votes) will deliver what we want.

There is nothing wrong with adding a little entertainment value to the debates, but when our amusement comes at the expense of helping us determine which candidate can best move the country forward, then we have defeated the purpose.

Presidential debates are a candidate's last best chance to provide crystalline clarity to their values, perspectives, and plans for the country, but as we conduct them now, the debates offer no new insights and few detailed solutions.

Worse still, presidential debates have devolved to the point of encouraging and rewarding candidates for disrespecting each other, the moderator, the office of the Presidency, and ultimately the American intellect.

If future presidential debates aren't re-structured and carried out with a modicum of dignity, then they may do more harm than good to our political process.

You can follow Jeff McKown on Twitter @waythingsturn or check out his daily blog.


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