An Anatomy of Political Debates

© 1984, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: The column below is another of the “treasures” from my historical files, written while I was editor of the Monahans News. Even though the debate between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984 is itself now simply historical, the remarks I made in pondering it and political debates in general are still relevant, I believe.

Of course, changes in style and content of debates have taken place since then. Much of the credit—or blame—for such changes can be laid at the doorstep of media innovations. If President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address before Congress (and the world) is any indication of what we can expect this upcoming political season, then we are in store for a virtual immersion in Powerpoint-style graphics and emotion-driving clips. I already almost shudder at the prospect.

Nonetheless, I believe we need to insist on debates and do whatever we can to make certain they are kept as broad, civil and on-point as we can. That is not going to be easy, but it is essential if we are to retain our democracy.

By the way, is there any time now that is not a “political season”?

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I have been taping the presidential/vice-presidential debates, mostly for historical reasons, but also because I catch parts the second time around that I missed the first. Admittedly, I’m partisan, but I can tell—and wince—when my side receives a verbal jab on the jaw. And I admire any four persons who can get up in front of a nationwide TV audience of about 80 million people and respond on their feet to incisive questions whirled at them by a group of three or four top journalists.

These debates have been the subject of much discussion by newspaper and television commentators. Debate and voice coaches were interviewed immediately after the debates about how each participant had done. Video clips of Walter Mondale’s convention speech and his performance during the debate were compared to illustrate the effects of voice-coaching. The President’s age became a campaign issue because of his faltering for words.  Vice-President Bush tried a little too hard to appear ebullient and ended up looking spasmodic. Geraldine Ferraro, presumably trying to compensate for what her critics have described as “aggressive stridency”, over-compensated and ended up looking as though she were trying to escape from a strait jacket.

Regardless of their individual performances, the very fact that those four could stand at their respective podiums and parry and thrust as they did was a commendable exercise I wish we could see more of. To me, the most noteworthy aspect of the whole scene was the more careful claims and counterclaims. Each had to try to be a little more circumspect than they are out in the heartland, where they speak primarily to supporters essentially uncritical of whatever they choose to say. Certainly, a few outlandish statements were made, but at least the opponent had his or her chance to respond to them right there minutes later.

Nevertheless, the validity of campaigning through debates has been questioned. Some say “these debates are not real debates” and others say “having a Rolodex for a brain doesn’t qualify one to be president”!

I honestly don’t see where these critics’ minds are! For sure, the presidential “debates” are not debates in the scholastic sense, nor can they be.  In a scholastic debate only one question is to be resolved. But we can’t afford to have our candidates spend all their time on one question; there are too many issues that need responses. Moreover, unlike a scholastic debate, the tool used is not always reason but appropriate emotion.

As for the capacity for reeling off facts and figures, nobody is asking the candidates to snow them with such. At each juncture where the candidates resorted to a long succession of numbers, they lost the audience and, for that brief period at least, the debate. Just as the questions were for the most part thoughtfully composed by the journalists, the queries should not have come as any great surprise to the candidates. Moreover, real questions on the issue, as they are based upon principles, can be answered on the basis of principles, concisely and honestly, and numbers seldom need be resorted to.

While it is true that a good debater doesn’t necessarily make a good president, it is also true that a poor debater is even less likely to make a good president. After all, most of these politicians’ jobs involve trying to persuade someone to their point of view. If Reagan was really “toe to toe” with Gromyko during the latter’s recent visit to the White House—as Reagan’s men would like to have us believe—surely being able to articulate and resolve differences was the key to the whole conversation. A president needs to be able to think on his feet and talk on his feet.

In political debates we have practically our only opportunity to hear candidates discuss the same issues at one place and time. Too often out on the hustings, a candidate will discuss only the issues wherein he has the stronger case. Without his opponent at hand to refute him, he encounters only occasional close questioning from some astute citizen.

Of course, there is the “real politick” aspect of debates. The incumbent has the most to lose. Once, while I was urging one of our local representatives to agree to a debate with his challenger, his response was: “I can draw a crowd. Why should I draw one for him?”  And it’s true that politicians at all levels invest a lot of other people’s money as well as their own into their campaigns. They also work long hours traveling over their district to meet the voters, so why should they give their opponents’ any leverage? While I concede that these are true facts of life for politicians, I also reply that the voters’ interests are being ignored in that line of reasoning.

As far as I am concerned, debates should not be optional but mandatory.

The Monahans News, October 18, 1984


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Francisco Castillo on February 12, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    The more things change, the more they stay the same!

  2. Posted by Anonymous on February 12, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I always let my husband watch them, then he can tell me about them. And if I feel interested, I will youtube them. (laughing out loud)

  3. Thanks for reading and the comment.

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