So much has been made of Rick Perry’s flub during the Republican presidential debate on November 9 that most pundits have written off his candidacy, and the public seems to as well according to latest polling data. But is it really fair to judge Perry or anyone else based on performance during a debate?
Since John F. Kennedy was determined by the media and pundits to have won the first-ever televised debate against Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (mostly on appearance rather than substance), the value of televised debates not only for presidential candidates but also for gubernatorial and Congressional candidates has been considered critical in our political culture over the past half century.
For the respective campaigns, debates can be a risky venture. It could be like walking through a political minefield in the dark. A Perry-like moment could doom a candidacy. Yet debates offer a candidate who may or may not be cash-strapped an opportunity to get his or her message out on the cheap; it could save on expensive ad buys especially in large media markets.
It also provides an opportunity to land that zinger that political campaigns dream of whereby an opponent could be flattened with one well-constructed and well-timed sound bite. But these zingers, have had mixed results and do not necessarily predict an outcome of an election.
Yes, Ronald Reagan during the 1980 New Hampshire primary boosted his campaign with his well-received “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” line in a Nashua debate which basically pushed George H.W. Bush into also-ran status.
And Mr. Reagan bounced off from a stumbling debate performance in 1984 against Walter F. Mondale when he floored the current vice-president in the next round with “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” He won both elections decisively.
But arguably the most devastating zinger was landed by vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen against his opponent Senator Dan Quayle in 1988. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” stung like a swarm of hornets. Nonetheless, the ticket of Dukakis-Bentsen only managed to win 10 states and the District of Columbia come November.
Since then, such zingers have been few and far between. Most candidates prepare for debates like it was an oral quiz and spew out information which may or may not be factual. The attempted zinger, when perceived as rehearsed, comes off phony.
Debates have been so integrated into elections that competing campaigns most often debate each other on format, positioning, time requirements, etc. because each side wants to present themselves in the most favorable light.
The current crop of Republican candidates poised to challenge Barack Obama will be engaging in such debates ad nauseum through the primary season. Everything is relative; a mediocre performance can be considered skillful when compared to the rest of the field.
Given the emphasis on televised debates, should debating skills be essential to governing? Is it that important for a president to be a proficient debater?
In a practical sense, a president rarely needs to demonstrate debating skills once elected. Being a knock-out debater is not a key quality in being the leader of the free world. Most “debates” occur internally with staff, out of the public view, on policy matters or strategy. In these situations it would be more important for staff to debate effectively than it would be for the president. The president is a listener and a facilitator during these sessions, not a debater.
When meeting with adversaries, whether it be foreign leaders, reluctant allies or congressional opponents, the president rarely engages in debates. Instead, negotiating skills are far more useful and productive.
Like it or not, we are in an era that televised debates are the key test for candidates. True, they allow candidates to distinguish themselves from their opponent(s) on issues in a short amount of time. And it affords an opportunity to measure how a candidate commands facts under pressure. In that sense, it has value.
But governing requires other skills, such as judgment, decision-making, leadership and communication. That’s what voters should be evaluating as well as a candidate’s positions on issues, not how he or she answers a question in 30 seconds.