Tag Archives: political debates

The Dubious Value of Political Debates

‘Tis the season for political debates.

And for the life of him The Curmudgeon doesn’t understand why.

A recent Washington Post article lamented the decline of debates between candidates for public office. More and more, the Post noted, candidates – especially incumbents – are choosing not to debate or to limit the number of debates in which they participate. This is too bad, the Post observed, because

Voters who rely on debates to clarify their thinking, to connect with a candidate or to get an answer to the question candidates choose not to discuss on the campaign trail, will have to make their decisions without that input.


The Curmudgeon has a word for people who “rely on debates to clarify their thinking.”


Growing up, The Curmudgeon doesn’t recall many political debates. In school we learned about the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate, but what we learned wasn’t very comforting: that Kennedy may have won the election because of his performance, during which he looked cool and collected while Nixon looked uncomfortable and shifty (alas, Nixon’s default demeanor), but that people who listened to the debate on the radio – still the primary way some people followed the news in 1960 – felt Nixon came out on top. It was a classic case of style winning out over substance – not a very reassuring thing.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford debated his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, three times, and those debates were most notable for a serious gaffe by Ford, who insisted that Poland was not subject to Soviet domination in eastern Europe, and for the lights going out during the debate in Philadelphia. From that point on debates became an important part of our political landscape.

And The Curmudgeon is not at all happy about it.

After all, what can we really learn from a debate?

Well, we certainly can learn which candidate is the better debater.

And the value of that is…?

Nothing. It has no value. Just because someone is a better debater doesn’t mean he or she is better or smarter or has better ideas or is more qualified to hold the office being contested. All it means is that the person has better debating skills.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t very relevant to holding public office. Presidents don’t debate. Governors don’t debate. We like to think legislators debate, but really, the rules that govern Congress, state legislatures, and even city and town councils frequently are so rigid and formal that there’s seldom any real debate. Yes, people talk, yes, they give speeches, but there’s very little genuine back and forth between the two sides on any issue. Each side enters into the “debate” with the points it wants to make and it makes them; responses to the points offered by the other side are strictly optional and real engagement between people with different views is virtually non-existent.

The Curmudgeon can only recall one debate that he found enlightening. A few years ago, a New Jersey contest for the U.S. Senate featured incumbent Robert Menendez, a Democrat, running against Tom Kean, Jr., son of the state’s popular former governor. The Curmudgeon finds Menendez to be, well, kind of slimy, and based on what he was reading about Kean, the Republican sounded a lot like his father – that is, an old-fashioned, moderate Republican and therefore possibly a reasonable alternative to Menendez. Then they debated and The Curmudgeon saw for himself what no amount of reading could reveal: that Kean was, how shall we say this, just not very bright. (This appears to be what we get when the sons of respected and respectable elected Republican executive branch leaders try to follow in their daddy’s footsteps).

But this was clearly an exception in a sea of pointless debates.

Another reason debates aren’t very useful is that increasingly, the candidates of the two major parties are so far apart on the issues that matter most to voters that there’s really nothing to debate. Once upon a time, candidates might debate about somewhat nuanced differences in how they might approach, say, public education or crime or the pursuit of peace in the middle east. They might reasonably offer points to prove that theirs was the better approach and that they deserved your vote so they could pursue that approach.

debatersNow, though, the major party candidates are usually miles apart on almost every issue – especially domestic issues; Republicans are at one extreme of the spectrum and Democrats are at the other. If you’re the kind of person who’s interested enough in public affairs to tune into a debate, you already know the extreme positions of the two candidates – and what’s more, you already know which of the extremes you prefer, or at least can more easily tolerate.

So what’s the point of debating?

But, you may say, not everyone is as informed as some of us, some people need the debates because they’re not getting information about candidates from any other sources.

This is true – but, The Curmudgeon suggests, irrelevant.

Think about it.

These folks aren’t getting any information about candidates from newspapers.

Or radio.

Or television.

Or the internet.

Or social media (heaven help us when people start relying on social media for information about public affairs).

Do you really want such people voting at all? Of course they have the right, but do we really want to encourage them to go to the polls? (The Curmudgeon has written about the unenlightened electorate before. Find that piece here.)

So then who are the debates for?

They’re for the news media – for reporters who don’t care what the candidates say on matters of substance and are looking for a “gotcha” statement that a candidate makes in the heat of the moment (like President Ford’s); they’re for editorial writers who can’t think for themselves; they’re for the people who ask the questions and who fervently hope that a sharp question about something nobody cares about (except for the boys and girls on the bus) will catapult them into a national spotlight; and they’re for League of Women Voters types who think, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that debates do even a little bit of good.

The Curmudgeon actually is a fan of debate; in high school, he was even on the debate team (surely that doesn’t surprise you). But what the politicians do these days isn’t debating, it’s not even remotely enlightening, and it’s no longer worth the time and effort that goes into staging and preparing for them.