The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 10: Can the American Voters Win a Debate?

The next Presidential election is 13 months away and the campaigns are in full swing. The idea of watching the candidates debate in the public forum goes back to 1858 when Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) ran against Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) for the Senate seat from Illinois.

In the 1960 Presidential election, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy gave us the first experience of a Presidential debate since the invention of the TV. Most people thought John Kennedy won the debate and this contributed to his victory.

After 1960 there were no debates until 1976 when Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter and we’ve been saddled with these debates ever since.

As someone who actually lettered for the debate team in high school it may seem like a betrayal to say this, but I think Presidential debates are a bad idea. Many years ago George F. Will famously described these debates as “parallel news conferences” and I think he’s right. But my concern goes much deeper.

I don’t watch most of these debates because I don’t think the candidates use them to explain what they support and what they oppose. If I’m going to watch candidates on stage I want to learn which one best reflects my beliefs and values.

Alas virtually all of the “analysis” of these debates devolve into reality TV: who won and who lost.

In 1992 George H.W. Bush was famously seen looking at his watch against Bill Clinton. Regardless of his reason it was perceived as “why do I still have to be here?” and many believed it contributed to his defeat. Four years ago Rick Perry famously stumbled on how many cabinet positions he would eliminate and that essentially ended his candidacy.

So far in the 2016 election cycle we’ve had 2 Republican and 1 Democratic debates. Virtually without exception the candidates don’t spend their time honing their views or explaining how they plan to govern. Instead they concentrate on “winning the debate.”

I’m perfectly willing to vote for a candidate who doesn’t win the debate as long as he or she articulates a path to the America I think we’re called to.

But I recognize that many of my fellow citizens want to “back the winner” and vote for the person who they think will win. And it makes me sad.

I think that we are not well served by candidates who tell us (in different ways) that we should vote for them because they will be the next President. The fact that “everyone is voting for him or her” means nothing to me. I respect people who vote their values instead of their need to belong. I just wish there were more of us.

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