The general election presidential debates can elect a candidate or send one home. So, it was standing room only at Café Milano as politicos gathered to watch the transfer of power from long-time Commission on Presidential Debates Democratic Co-Chairman Paul Kirk to former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry.“We’ve got to make [the debates] more relevant so that young people enjoy watching them; that’s what we’re going to be working on between now and 2012,” McCurry told POLITICO Monday.
I’ve got a better idea: get rid of the debates. They not only aren’t relevant to young voters; they really aren’t relevant to the job of being president. Like well-prepped standardized test takers, most politicians can get through one of these things after the practice rounds, the coaches, and a healthy amount of memorization. But the ability to get off one-liners, repeat pabulum on cue, and answer any question with the same prearranged answers isn’t really the sort of thing that makes for great leadership or effective presidents.
Moreover, the debates perpetuate the myth that verbal acuity is the most prized quality in a president. It doesn’t hurt, but is it more important that executive prowess, a well-grounded appreciation of America’s role in the world, and a basic understanding of market economics? We’ve spent the past year learning that the answer is an emphatic no.
But the debates have become rituals of campaigns, as indispensable as the convention balloon drop and the suspense surrounding the selection of the VP. So I really don’t think they’re going to disappear entirely. But I think the angst about how to get more voters to watch is pointless. (Debates already get big TV audiences.) We’d do better to think long and hard about why we’ve let the media mavens and political consultants convince us that this is an effective way to assess presidential candidates.