Debatable Value

The binders have been shelved. Big Bird has nested. The death stares and Joker leers have gone back to the DC comic book from whence they came.

Debate season, at long last, is over.

Can I hear an amen!

I kind of thought so.

It’s funny. I cover politics for a living. I love diving into a sea of government and coming up with a pearl of fact; I like turning the turgid mass of bureaucratic “English” into something that makes sense to you and me. Overall, I think democracy’s a pretty good system – one that asks a lot, but one that gives a lot, too.

But every election year, without fail, there comes a point where I start thinking “You know, monarchy doesn’t sound so bad.” One too many mailers, one too may robo-calls, one too many screaming ads on television.

And then, to cap it off, there’s the debates.

The debates!

Ideally, this should be the spotlight moment of any democracy. At a local level, it often is. You get a forum where the moderator gives an issue, the candidates give their take on it, and the audience comes away a little more enlightened than before.

At the presidential level? Give me leave to doubt.

It’s revealing, I think, to look at the question that gets asked when the dust has cleared. Ideally, there’s a few things people should be asking: “What did they say?” “Is it true?” “Will it work?”

But what do we ask when the debate is over?

Come on, you know this one.
“Who won?”

One more reality show. “Survivor” with a moderator.

I never really thought I’d say this. I kind of hate myself for it. But I think we’ve reached the point in the presidential race where the debates don’t really add all that much.

What do we get from them?

There’s still a few things, I know. A sense of how a candidate carries themselves. How they respond when challenged. Whether they’ve been able to get any sleep the night before. I’ve heard this called the job interview, and there’s still a little truth to it.

But a job interview where two applicants answer simultaneously, interrupt each other and compete to see who can come up with the most effective “zinger” about the other’s resume’ doesn’t sound all that useful to any employer I’ve ever met.

Is there a way to take it back? To make it about content and thought instead of charisma and talking points?

Or let’s ask the scarier question. Will it matter if we do?

Voters arguably have access to more information about their candidates now than ever. You can see their positions, and then see those positions fact-checked, criticized and defended to a fare-thee-well. And by the time the actual debates come around, most minds have been set.

I know, it’s fashionable at this point of the year to talk about the undecided voter. But I think that’s an endangered species. What we’re seeing now is the highly decided voter. Ones who have already decided which facts they believe, which narratives they’re plugging into. In a case like that, the debates are even less likely to inform, even more likely to confirm an existing bias.

I’ll grant that the first debate this year gave a fresh momentum to the Romney campaign. But was that because he convinced new supporters? Or because he was able to rally the existing ones?

If that’s the case – if the debates are becoming a pep rally with factoids – do they still serve the purpose they should?

I hope I’m wrong. I really do. Because if I’m right, we might get just as much value – and maybe even more information – from watching the candidates compete on a revived Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Actually, that sounds kind of intriguing. But I’m not married to it.

It is, after all, open to debate.

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