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What Do Debates Prove?
I love presidential debates. I really do. Primary debates are probably my favorites. While most people find them boring, I'm fascinated with the spectacle of a stage full of well-groomed candidates proudly promoting themselves and devaluing their opponents. The more candidates, the more entertaining. I'm impressed with participants' ability to quickly reply to tough questions with snappy, stylistic answers, and I ponder the number of pain-staking hours it must have taken to prepare those candidates to answer those questions so smoothly.
After each debate, I enjoy listening to the analysis of political pundits who weigh in on all the rhetoric, offer their opinions of who came out on top, and predict how each candidate's campaigns will proceed forward.
A couple days later, I surf on over to Real Clear Politics and check out the latest public opinion polls to see who benefited from their performance and who hurt themselves.
I suppose I'm an armchair political junkie.
Yet, there's something about these debates that really bothers me... I mean, really bothers me: While I'm in the minority of people who finds them entertaining, I also believe I'm in a minority of people who thinks these debates are a really bad way of determining the best candidate for the most important office there is.
While it's important for candidates to have a platform for distinguishing themselves from opponents, voicing their ideas, and stating their records, I can't reconcile how these debates honestly determine who the best leader is.
If the best leader is defined by who is the most quick-witted, who is the most gifted speaker, and who looks the most presidential, then perhaps the debates do indeed serve a substantial purpose. But I fear there is a major cultural problem in our election process when we place so much importance on a candidate's presentation.
To me, the presidency and leadership in general is much more about principles and decision-making than it is about personality and delivery. There have certainly been effective leaders throughout history that capitalized greatly from their personal charisma (Ronald Reagan comes immediately to mind), but I think we're far too shallow when it comes to what we expect from our candidates these days. We reject candidates with records of achievement like Tim Pawlenty because he's dull. We give Mike Huckabee a caucus win because he starred in a charming commercial with Chuck Norris. We elect a junior senator from Illinois with no leadership experience because he talks eloquently about hope and change.
Now, I'm not naive. I understand the concept of electability. Presentation is a key component of electability. The goal is to sell yourself to the American people, and style is an easier sale than substance. I just wish we could somehow bring ourselves to distinguish between the best leader and the most attractive candidate. They're often quite different.