Comedy of Errors

In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign ran circles around John McCain's with its deft use of social media, empowering supporters to become active participants. Four years before, Howard Dean shocked everyone into understanding that the Internet could be more than a novelty and could actually generate money and votes. Looking back even further, Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee bought a wave of television advertising starting in 1995, beginning the campaign before he even had an opponent.

Every election or two features new ways for campaigns to communicate with voters, and every time we wonder if the new medium or method will fundamentally transform presidential campaigning. Yet here we are in 2011, watching news on our smartphones and checking the campaign's progress on Twitter, and debates -- those overly staged, artificial, and often absurd events -- seem more important than ever.

Just ask Rick Perry. A few short weeks ago, he was the savior of the Republican Party, a guy who was pulled into the race by the entreaties of fellow conservatives dissatisfied with the field, and shot to the top of primary polls as soon as he announced his candidacy. But then Perry joined his fellow candidates at a pair of debates, where he not only looked tired and inarticulate but had to defend himself on issues that made him seem less the rock-ribbed conservative than everyone assumed him to be. Exchanges on two of those issues -- his attempt to mandate HPV vaccinations for girls in Texas, and his support of giving in-state college tuition to children of undocumented immigrants -- were replayed over and over, as were some other less-than-inspiring moments. All this led to one article after another with titles like "Perry under pressure after debate stumbles." Those debates stripped the sheen off the Texas governor. The Huffington Post's survey of Republican "Power Outsiders" (party leaders and political activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) showed 57 percent saying their opinion of Perry had gotten worse in the last few weeks, and they now rate Mitt Romney more electable by a 63-24 margin.

But let's be fair: Did Perry's poor performance in the debates prove that he'd be a bad president? Not really. And it isn't as though the issues of HPV and immigration were something his opponents didn't know about before and weren't already raising. But all of us, particularly reporters, conclude that a criticism, a stumble, or a snappy one-liner is more meaningful if it's uttered when standing behind a lectern on the same stage as your fellow candidates.

We should give credit where it's due, however. Though the candidates may be overly rehearsed and the questions less than enlightening, debates do offer voters a more extended look at the contenders than they'll get anywhere else. Unless you're a registered Republican in Iowa or New Hampshire -- in which case four or five candidates will probably knock on your door, if they haven't already -- the most you're ever likely to see of them at a time is an eight-second sound bite on the news. In a debate, in contrast, you actually get to see them talk at length -- make their cases, defend their records, and answer uncomfortable questions. Voters do often learn things from debates, about the issues themselves and where the candidates stand. Standing next to people who want you to fail means you're more likely to get called on your baloney. Sometimes, candidates even get asked the follow-up questions they so dread. It has the potential, if often unrealized, to be quite revealing.

Even if they are performances and therefore fundamentally artificial (just like the rest of the campaign) debates can also allow candidates to display the political skills they'll need as president. After all, communicating -- to the public, to Congress, to the rest of the world -- is a large part of what a president must do well in order to succeed. Consider just one example of what are sometimes called "decisive moments," when in a town hall debate in the 1992 general election, a woman asked the candidates how they had been personally affected by the national debt. George H.W. Bush made the mistake of taking the question literally and struggled to come up with an answer before finally defending himself against what he thought was an attack on him as a rich person. When it came his turn to respond, Bill Clinton walked toward the woman, locked eyes with her, and said, "Tell me how it's affected you again? You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes?" The man sure could feel your pain. That empathy was one of the defining features of his political persona and his presidency, and it was never more clearly demonstrated than in that debate.

Though the campaign might stretch over almost two years, it still needs events to focus attention. Debates are the ultimate in what historian Daniel Boorstin, in his 1961 book The Image, called "pseudo-events," which he defined as planned occurrences created "for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced." Half a century ago, the idea seemed novel and a little frightening -- that so much of what constitutes "news" are not things that happened on their own, but events staged solely so they could be recorded, photographed, and retransmitted. But now we take it for granted, nowhere more so than in campaigns. When a candidate leans over to place a paternal hand on the shoulder of a tow-headed youth while the cameras click away, the beaming parents standing nearby are not the ones whose votes he's after but the thousands or millions who'll see the image and respond to the caring and resolve on exhibit.

During debates, the candidates try desperately to create those kinds of moments, where their supposedly admirable qualities will be vividly displayed. It's true that the decisive moments the press chooses are as likely to be misleading as illuminating. It's true that we have too many primary debates, and they're subject to diminishing returns. It's true that the journalists tasked with moderating them often ask inane questions. And it's true that entire candidacies can be destroyed, often unfairly, because of an ill-considered comment in a debate. For all that, debates bring to mind Winston Churchill's famous comment that democracy is the worst system of government, with the exception of all the others. Debates may be the worst thing about our presidential campaigns, with the exception of everything else about our presidential campaigns.

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