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Presidential debates . . .
Are as unpresidential as can be
When the drafters of the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787 pondered how to choose a president, they did not envisage that the process would involve candidates standing on stage shouting at each other. The drafters’ model president, the man they designed the office for, uttered nary a word in the arguments over the provisions of the new charter. George Washington was not a debater. He wasn't much of a public speaker at all. Yet this wasn't held against him. On the contrary, his reputation for taciturnity elevated him in the drafters’ esteem. Sound judgment was what they wanted in a president, not oratorical skills. James Otis or Patrick Henry for rabble-rousing, but not for president.
Debating was what members of Congress did. Significantly, the most important campaign debate in American politics in the 19th century—between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas—was for a seat in the Senate. In the Senate, as in the House of Representatives, members strived to persuade one another. The great debaters of the era were three senators: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun. Their arguments interpreted the Constitution and crafted the compromises that held the Union together through its difficult early decades. Significantly, none of the three became president, though not for want of trying.
Until the 20th century, presidents rarely spoke in public. Thomas Jefferson, an abysmal public speaker, refused to deliver his State of the Union messages orally, instead sending written reports to Congress. The practice persisted until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. The best-remembered presidential speech of the era, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, was an afterthought to the main event of that commemorative afternoon, comprising a mere 272 words. It ended before many in the audience realized Lincoln had begun to speak.
Wilson was the first president who could be considered an orator. His father was a minister and he himself trained for a career of preaching before diverting into law, then academics, then politics. Wilson was a powerful speaker— too powerful, as it turned out. He persuaded Congress to vote for war against Germany in 1917, conjuring a vision of a world made safe for democracy. This vision was more than the real world could sustain, and when the Paris peace conference produced something less than Wilson's ideal, the Senate and then the American people concluded they had been sold a bill of goods. In turning their backs on the world, they handed Europe to the likes of Mussolini and Hitler.
Presidential debates are an artifact of the television age. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first major party nominees to square off ahead of a general election. Debates provided drama and good ratings for the television networks that aired them. But they provided nothing in the way of solid guidance to voters as to who would make the better president. Nixon defeated Kennedy on substance but lost on style, leading to a Camelot presidency that was long on style but short on substance.
One-on-one debates between the party nominees were misleading enough. But the battle-royals among several candidates for the party nominations were much worse. As this week's debate among the Republican candidates demonstrated, they degenerate into verbal chaos, with candidates talking over each other and steamrolling the moderators.
A cottage industry has developed for pundits to claim victory for their favorites. A snappy one-liner can not only evade a question but neutralize an important issue. "I'm not going to exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience," said Ronald Reagan in response to a question regarding his age. The pundits proclaimed he had laid the issue to rest. So he had for the duration of the campaign. But the age issue emerged with a vengeance after Reagan was reelected. In his second term he suffered from early symptoms of the dementia that would rob him of his mental faculties. Important matters fell through the cracks, contributing to the Iran-contra scandal, among other miscues.
The basic problem is that the qualities that make a candidate look good in debate either have no bearing on how that candidate will perform if elected or point in the wrong direction. Nikki Haley might be able to drown out Vivek Ramaswamy, but amplitude won’t help her in negotiations with Congress or foreign leaders. Debates select for decisiveness and the appearance of strength, but leadership of a great country in a fraught world requires subtlety and the ability to forge alliances through compromise.
Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 largely on the strength of his performance in debates. His momentum, combined with the baggage of opponent Hillary Clinton, carried him to victory in the general election. All previous presidents, no matter how controversial the campaigns that landed them in the White House, donned the mantle of statesman upon inauguration. But Trump remained in the combat mode of the debates, playing to his base rather than reaching out to Americans at large. The result was a presidency roiled in needless controversy, one that produced far less for Trump’s policies than it might have and earned him an eviction notice in the election of 2020.
Although Trump boycotted the Republican debate this week, his spirit infused its atmosphere. And the campaign was just beginning. The spectacle would only grow louder and more unenlightening. Somewhere the framers of the Constitution were shaking their heads in amazed disappointment.