Abolish the debates

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images I found Politico‘s roundup of pundits offering CBS’ Bob Schieffer advice for moderating the last presidential debate a little pointless, since I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter how good a moderator he is tonight, these same pundits are going to be disappointed. The “media elites,” as Sarah Palin would say, ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
592043_081015_debate15.jpg
592043_081015_debate15.jpg

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I found Politico's roundup of pundits offering CBS' Bob Schieffer advice for moderating the last presidential debate a little pointless, since I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter how good a moderator he is tonight, these same pundits are going to be disappointed. The "media elites," as Sarah Palin would say, are hungry for the candidates to make news at the debates and seem perpetually disappointed when they just hear the same talking points they've been reporting for months.

As I wrote near the end of the Democratic primary, the candidate's positions on nearly every conceivable issue are so well-refined and publicized at this point, that the only way to generate news at a debate is to go the George Stephanapolous route of asking pop quiz questions and emphasizing personal scandal. There's really no way for Schieffer to win. If he asks good substantive questions, the candidates will recite their talking points and the debate will be boring. If he presses them on "character" issues and personal attacks, he'll (rightly) be accused of descending into tabloidism.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

I found Politico‘s roundup of pundits offering CBS’ Bob Schieffer advice for moderating the last presidential debate a little pointless, since I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter how good a moderator he is tonight, these same pundits are going to be disappointed. The “media elites,” as Sarah Palin would say, are hungry for the candidates to make news at the debates and seem perpetually disappointed when they just hear the same talking points they’ve been reporting for months.

As I wrote near the end of the Democratic primary, the candidate’s positions on nearly every conceivable issue are so well-refined and publicized at this point, that the only way to generate news at a debate is to go the George Stephanapolous route of asking pop quiz questions and emphasizing personal scandal. There’s really no way for Schieffer to win. If he asks good substantive questions, the candidates will recite their talking points and the debate will be boring. If he presses them on “character” issues and personal attacks, he’ll (rightly) be accused of descending into tabloidism.

So why have debates at all? What would we lose without them? If you’ve been paying attention to the race at all for the last three months, you’re not going to hear anything new. If you’re a low-information voter who’s legitimately curious about how a candidate plans to tackle the economic crisis, I guarantee you won’t learn anything much from the debates that can’t be found in their stump speeches or campaign material. If you’re just trying to decide whether to vote for the black guy who might be a terrorist or the old guy who talks about war a lot, well, you’d just have to make that decision on your own.

The celebrated game-changing moments from debate history — Richard Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow in 1960, Ronald Reagan’s “youth and inexperience” quip from 1984, Al Gore’s frustrated sighing in 2000 — had more to do with body language and clever one-liners than qualifications for the presidency. When potential vice president Joe Biden is actually telling voters they should “turn the sound off” and just watch Obama and McCain’s body language, we’ve obviously entered some bizarre new meta-political world.

The only people who benefit from debates are those same professional pundits who will get another chance in the post-debate analysis to prattle on about “themes” and “narratives” like a creepy combination of SportsCenter and a seminar on French post-structuralism. McCain might yet pull off an upset and “win” tonight’s debate, but the idea that any undecided voters will actually base their votes for either candidate on these monotonous spectacles frankly baffles and terrifies me.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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