Why the debates stink

Jeremi Suri

I love rigorous toe-to-toe debates, but I hate what I have seen from our presidential candidates in their recent performances. Debates are supposed to force a detailed and focused interrogation of issues, but the past two encounters have only encouraged attacks and personal viciousness accompanied by saccharine smiles. Debates are designed to show candidates’ clarity on positions and contrast their styles. The past two debates have included so many slippery shifts in position that it is less clear today what the candidates believe than it was before the debates. Most of all, debates are intended to showcase leadership demeanor and command capabilities. Tuesday’s “town hall” brawl undermined any opportunity to assess these qualities. The two candidates spent their time interrupting one another, arguing with the moderator and flaunting their postures as aggressive warriors. At moments, it looked like they were keen to clobber one another. These displays of belligerence are harmful on the high school playground, and they are deadly in the White House. Shame on President Obama and Gov. Romney. They are much better than what they have become in this campaign.

I am not nostalgic for the mythical time of “clean” and “substantive” politics in America. I know very well that such a moment never occurred. Despite their powdered wigs and dignified public demeanor, even our nation’s founders engaged in vicious attacks against opponents. Two of the greatest early American politicians, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, literally came to blows, with Hamilton dying from a bullet fired by Burr’s dueling gun. American politics have always involved brawling. Negative advertising is only a modern form of the traditional campaign.

What is new, however, is the use of information overload to obscure positions. Both President Obama and Gov. Romney are throwing more “facts” at listeners than ever before, but they are refusing to offer coherently argued positions. They each claim to support lower taxes, increased government revenue, lower deficits and more spending. They each pledge to assert more American strength abroad while bringing the troops home. Most confusingly, President Obama and Gov. Romney agree that job creation is a priority, while they simultaneously oppose jobs plans or even targeted investments in job creation and training at home. Watching them throw around the data from all directions, one gets more information but less clarity about how purpose and policy will fit together. It is like listening to kids argue about who started a fight. As they debate the facts, it becomes easier to continue the fight than create a useful path forward.

We need debates in our campaigns, but not these debates. The problem is more than format. It is about what we as citizens have come to expect in an age of talk radio and blogs in which those who shout loudest and longest, not those who make the most persuasive arguments, are rewarded with fame and money. We are a public culture of argument without real debate, and that needs to change if we ever want a true marketplace of ideas. At present, we have an overload of facts and positions without the interrogation and testing necessary for finding the truth.

So here is what I propose: Let’s scrap the open “foreign policy” brawl that is planned for the next debate. Instead, the public should demand that the two candidates sit down together at a table (please no more shoulder-to-shoulder jousting!) with an agreed focus on one discrete topic — for example, tax policy or job creation or the Iranian nuclear project. A real debate would require each candidate to explain what he will do in the next four years to address that specific challenge. After that, each candidate should be allowed to cross-examine the other with short questions, not statements.

Under this scheme, President Obama can describe the budget he hopes to pass. Gov. Romney can then ask for details regarding deficits and pork in Obama’s proposed budget. Gov. Romney can outline his own proposed budget, and then President Obama can question him about income inequality and cuts to essential services under his plan. This is the form of dignified interrogation that works in corporate boardrooms, in academic seminars and in policymaking bodies like the National Security Council. It is also how generals assess competing war plans. Why should we expect less of our presidential candidates?

Proposing a detailed plan and defending it against substantive questions about its content and consequences is the most effective test of leadership. That is also what presidential debates should be about. We have had enlightening debates of this kind in the past with diverse candidates, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1996, as well as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. The time has come for a return to policy focus without flamboyant personal attacks. The future of the United States will not be determined by who is best at tearing down his opponent. The progress of our society will hinge on implementing policies that prove, under scrutiny, most helpful to the public.

Dr. Jeremi Suri is a professor in the UT Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. This essay originally appeared on his blog on Global Brief, an international affairs magazine.