Apparently, there are a few liberals out there concerned (or maybe just bored) that Mitt Romney brought some kind of a cheat sheet to the debate the other night, because he was seen taking something out of his pocket and putting it on his podium. The participants aren't supposed to bring any notes with them, but his campaign assures us that it was just a handkerchief. I'm not even going to get into the George W. Bush suit bulge affair, because I wouldn't want to encourage any tedious Zapruder-style analysis, but here's my question: Why the hell shouldn't they be allowed to bring notes?
Presidential debates shouldn't be a memorization contest. I'm fairly sure that Mitt Romney would win that hands down; I marveled during the primaries at his ability to say things like, "The answer is yes, Jim, and there are eight reasons why," then rattle off exactly eight things. But that doesn't necessarily mean he'd make a better president than someone without that ability. In fact, debates aren't like anything a president does. While they may illuminate some qualities that are useful, at no point during the next four years will whoever wins have to do another one. It's not like we're going to have a debate between the American president and Ayatollah Khamenei, with Bob Schieffer moderating, to determine whether Iran gets nuclear weapons.
By saying they can't bring notes, what we're saying is that what matters isn't the quality of the arguments presented, it's the performance. But would we lose anything if both Romney and Obama took time to craft their best two-minute case on, say, health care, and then referred to them during their discussion? Of course not. These events are supposed to let us evaluate the candidates' perspectives and what they want to do once they're in office. It's one thing to have all the press coverage afterward be about the performance, but do we have to build that bias into the rules themselves? So let them bring their notes. It might make for a more interesting debate.
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