Debates do little more than entertaining

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 9:18 a.m. CDT; updated 2:38 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

I have never been favorably impressed with the content or the conduct of presidential debates, but I have watched some of every debate since the Nixon/Kennedy face-off in 1960. My indifference stems from several factors — artificial questions, lack of moderator control, dependence on soundbites and cliches as opposed to actual debate, but, most of all, because of their limited effect on the election's outcome.

The entertainment value is a given, as seen in media hype leading up to the debates; the jousts between party spokespersons and TV talking heads; and the plaintive whining of third-party and splinter candidates over non-inclusion in the theater. Before feeling sorry for those who are snubbed, one must understand that, at last count, there were about 260 who had announced they are running for president. With that in mind, the requirement that each candidate be on the ballot in enough states for a mathematical chance to win, along with a 15 percent level of support among the electorate, is more than reasonable

There have been a number of memorable quotes from the debates. One was President Reagan's joking 1984 response to the issue of his age at 73: "I promise not to exploit for political purposes my opponent's (Mondale) youth and inexperience."

Watch Reagan respond to the issue of his age:

Among the most celebrated barbs was that heard in the 1988 vice presidential debate. When Senator Dan Quayle compared himself to President Kennedy, Senator Lloyd Bentsen replied: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy... You are no Jack Kennedy."

Watch Bentsen's response to Quayle:

Catchy as these comments were, they did not affect the final vote — President Reagan obviously had no need of levity, as he carried every state but Minnesota, and Bentsen's sharp retort was of no discernible help to Governor Michael Dukakis, who lost in a landslide. While the voters appreciate humor and sarcasm, they seek substance in the candidate.

By far, the most entertaining issue in these debates is the process of determining the winner —the current contest has been no different. Immediately following the discussion, those of us who watched or listened were imposed upon by a host of super-analysts from at least six television venues, all of whom iterated in painful detail not only what the candidate said, but what Senators John McCain and Barack Obama "really" meant.

These august interpreters are then joined by party faithful, politicos and spokespersons, all declaring in the most unbiased manner possible where, when, why and how their candidate won the day. The next entity to join the fray arrived in the form of Internet polls, with which the media networks, bloggers, et al. exhorted us to vote for our choice. Inasmuch as there are virtually no limits on who can vote or how often, any resemblance to reality in the final count is purely fictional.

In the final analysis of each session, picking the winner is firmly in the eyes of the beholder. Republican, Democrat, Independent or other, there are few who have not already decided for whom they will vote. Pundits', polls' and politicians' opinions and conclusions to the contrary, the one crowned as the best debater has little more relevance than the Homecoming Queen or Barnwarming King. Voters look for experience, wisdom and trust — grandiloquence and hollow promises offer little to provide for the common defense or to promote the general welfare.

In the first debate, both candidates acquitted themselves reasonably well, each scoring points on the other. Senator McCain held obvious experience in foreign policy and defense measures, while Senator Obama proved more polished and poised. The silliest accolade came from those who deemed Obama more "presidential." Arguably, the most "presidential" to win election was Warren G. Harding, who became the standard for corruption and ineptitude in office.

Since both candidates are sitting Senators with little executive or leadership laurels, we have two choices — a former combat pilot and commander of an aircraft squadron, or a community organizer and law lecturer.

Who won the debate? You decide — I lean toward the judgment acquired through age and experience. National defense is not an arena in which amateurs should experiment.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at


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John Schultz October 7, 2008 | 11:35 a.m.

I would disagree with Col. Miller's statement that "With that in mind, the requirement that each candidate be on the ballot in enough states for a mathematical chance to win, along with a 15 percent level of support among the electorate, is more than reasonable." The problem is that the Comission on Presidential Debates requires five nationwide polls to determine the 15% threshold, but there are not even five polling companies asking potential voters about third-party candidates. Thus, there is no way for this requirement to be met.

The other requirement of being on enough ballots to theoretically gain sufficient electoral votes to win the presidency should be the one true factor to be invited to the debates. In 2008, this has been met by Obama, McCain, Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party, independent Ralph Nader, and Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party. The Democrat and Republican debates had at least that many candidates in attendance at the beginning of the campaign cycle. Why should the public be limited in their choices at the end of the cycle?

(Report Comment)
Nicole Kesil October 8, 2008 | 9:21 p.m.

What debates really do is provide the reporters, columnists, political scientists and historians following the race with useful little vignettes that help in framing the already decided-upon narrative.

(Report Comment)

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