Debates don't matter in politics
Shaefer Bagwell claims that regardless of whether Obama wins or loses a debate, he is "still going to keep [his] Obama-Biden sticker on my laptop." | Courtesy of Nathan Forget [Creative Commons]
Last week, vice president Joe Biden and congressman Paul Ryan debated in Danville, Ky. Soon after, my email account began to swell with letters from the Obama campaign, urging me to show my support to the vice president with a donation, or by signing a petition, or by voting early. There were Facebook statuses about who won, and news stories galore about the “high stakes” of this debate.
The only reason this debate mattered at all was because of the one preceding it. Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney clashed in Denver, Colo. They debated domestic policy, and by every account Romney won the day. Subsequently, he enjoyed a rise in the polls, arresting his downward slide. He has been drawing larger crowds in swing states, and every major news outlet has been covering his resurgence.
Watching the furor after the debates unfold in national media, on the campaign trail, on Facebook, in my poli-sci classes and everywhere else has prompted me to ponder this question: Who cares? I ask this question as a fierce critic of political apathy and an all-around political junkie. Who cares? What difference do debates make?
In case you don’t know me at all, I am a staunch supporter of Obama. But watching the first debate, even I — who have donated to every campaign he’s run since 2004 — acknowledged that he lost. Here’s the thing: I’m still going to vote for him. I’m still going to keep my Obama-Biden sticker on my laptop. And I’m guessing that the debate didn’t change your mind either. If you supported the president before, chances are you supported him after. If you supported the governor before, chances are you still support him.
Every pundit made a big deal about the supposed stakes of last week’s vice-presidential debate. Really? Did anyone who watched the debate walk away saying, “Man, I wasn’t sure before, but now that I know how he thinks, I sure know who I’m casting my ballot for!” I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t really think anyone who hasn’t already made up their mind about who they’re voting for even watched the debate.
Which brings to mind a second question. What’s the point? The debates are predecided. The candidates memorize 10 word answers, uttering phrases perfectly prepackaged into sound-bites, ready for the 11 o’clock news rundown and newspaper pull-quotes. There’s no spontaneity, no passion, no actual debate. The only time that it actually matters is when there are doubts as to one candidate’s mental acuity.
In the case of Herman Cain or Rick Perry, the erstwhile Republican candidates, some were concerned about each candidate’s mastery of the issues, and the debates exposed their ignorance. In a situation such as this, where both participants in the debates are men of great intellect, where no one is casting aspersions on the brainpower or political acumen of either man, what’s the point? Going into these debates, I recognized that Romney is an intelligent man, a savvy man, a man with obvious command of the issues and obvious qualifications for leadership. I recognized those same qualities in the president. I have tremendous respect for the intelligence and policy knowledge of Ryan, and of Biden. What the debates actually test is not either candidate’s qualifications or intellect, but their ability to memorize portions of their stumps and spew them back convincingly. Is that a qualification for president? I hope not.
When debates actually show us anything about the candidates’ ability to do the job for which they’re vying, I’ll care. When they actually display relevancy to who we should vote for, I’ll respect the winner. Until then, until they’re no longer memorization contests and beauty pageants, I can’t see myself caring about them beyond their function as mildly entertaining television.