I wanted to add a few thoughts to Jonathan’s fine post regarding debates.
My view is they have intrinsic limits but are certainly worthwhile — and good debating skills are crucial if one hopes to be elected.
Let me take these observations in order.
I accept the fact that how well one debates doesn’t necessarily reflect how well a president will govern. But that is true of stump speeches, ads, and retail politics, too. Debates are simply one piece of a much larger puzzle — and they certainly tell us more about a candidate than an attack ad and stump speeches do.
Among other things, debates force a candidate to study briefing books and develop a mastery of the issues, which isn’t a bad thing (the forthcoming foreign policy debate, for example, has inspired Herman Cain to actually try to learn the basics of international affairs, something he has so far resisted). It can also reveal insights– sometimes limited and sometimes more than limited insights — into the personality and disposition of candidates.
In addition, debates put on display what is commonly referred to as one’s “communication skills” — skills that are vital to any successful presidency.
It’s also worth pointing out that some excellent presidents have also turned out to be excellent debaters, too. The most obvious example is Abraham Lincoln. But it’s worth mentioning Ronald Reagan as well. He was, in fact, a marvelous debater, especially in his younger years. For example, in a debate remembered only by a few these days, CBS News hosted a 1967 “Town Meeting of the World” in which Reagan debated Senator Robert Kennedy over the Vietnam war. Reagan was simply masterful (a clip of the debate can be found here: and a transcript of it can be found here:). The late historian David Halberstam, no conservative, acknowledged that the general consensus was that Reagan destroyed Kennedy.
Yet even if one believes debates are worthless in terms of what they pre-shadow about a person’s governing abilities, they are still crucial when it comes to winning votes.
Many people forget it now, but as late as 10 days before the 1980 election Jimmy Carter was still slightly ahead of Ronald Reagan in some polls (a CBS-New York Times poll had Carter ahead of Reagan 39 percent v. 38 percent, with the rest going to John Anderson). The public was certainly inclined to vote against Carter — but they had to be sold on Reagan, who had been savaged by the Carter campaign. And the place for the sale was a debate stage in Cleveland, where Reagan destroyed Carter and went on to win 44 states. If Reagan had done badly in the debates, it’s conceivable he would have lost the election.
All of which is to say I’m in favor of debates, the more the better. They don’t tell us everything we need to know about a candidate by any means; but they tell us more than we would otherwise know.