For many, presidential debates are peak moments in the electoral season. The popularity and importance of debates highlights a fundamental dynamic of our political system and cultural ethos – Americans like a good fight. But despite the emotional response many of us may have to strong debate performances, some of the characteristics and rhetorical acumen that define an impressive debate showing are the exact opposite qualities of those which make a good president.
Last week’s most attention-garnering line is symptomatic of this paradox. The statement was a bizarre and largely inconsequential response to a question on the federal deficit. As part of his answer, Governor Romney commented, “I’m sorry… I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS… I like PBS. I love Big Bird…”
It was the most memorable statement in a night of bold economic promises from both candidates – to cut or raise taxes; to alter federal programs relied upon by millions. But with these promises came an implicit request that the public ignore the Constitutional fact that presidents are nearly powerless to enact such proposals without Congressional blessing. In truth, are Senate Democrats likely to pass a ‘Big Bird butchering budget?’ Are House Republicans likely to authorize the President’s proposed solar energy expansions?
Thus, both candidates effectively used rhetoric to create the illusion that they have the ability to unilaterally form policy where no such ability exists. While this rhetorical overstatement of executive authority scores political points, it perpetuates the falsehood that effective governance – and consequently, effective debating – emanate from the effective use of force. Yet, when the expectations set by this rhetoric eventually run headlong into the reality of governance, we bemoan the lack of results.
The PBS pledge also worked well as a rhetorical signaling tool. PBS is generally ranked as the most trusted public institution in the country and its $450 million federal subsidy accounts for a statistically insignificant one ten-thousandth of the federal budget. Yet, Governor Romney proudly pledged to de-fund it because it signaled to a portion of the electorate that he shared their hostile sentiments about the liberal media and public education.
Despite its rhetorical impact, the PBS pledge exposes problematic implications for actual governing. In a contest primarily of rhetorical ability, it is easy to conflate the trivial with the profound. Yet, the willingness to turn a molehill of a program into a mountain of partisan controversy begs the question: how will that candidate handle the real mountains? What happens when the issue is a $1.2 trillion fiscal cliff instead of a measly $450 million PBS budget? When the constituencies clamoring for satisfaction are diverse and their needs are nuanced, the decisions are infinitely more complex. What use then are the rhetorical platitudes that win debates?
These rhetorical abuses in the debate speak to larger issues regarding the current state of our political dialogue. A nonstop news cycle has infused the entire campaign with pugilistic rhetoric. Every day, the media, campaigns, and public ask, ‘Who won the day?’ In this context, policy becomes irrelevant and rhetoric becomes currency. Further, rhetoric is increasingly buttressed by deception, platitudes, and outright lies.
Falsehoods and rhetorical abuses are not new to politics, but the game has changed. The old adage that “a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on” is obsolete. The lie has not simply traveled halfway around the globe – it has traversed its networks myriad times. Meanwhile, an exploding volume of misleading statements has spawned a new – and thriving – fact-checking industry. Politicafact.org alone receives over 3 million monthly user views.
Debate organizers must respond to this new political normal by adapting the debate format to better emphasize the talents that facilitate effective governance. More substantive debates would be moderated by panels of policy experts who would rebut false claims and challenge the merits of the candidates’ proposals. Moderators would present hypothetical case-based problems, forcing candidates to rely on experience and expertise rather than rehearsed rhetoric. Microphones could be cut when candidates run out of time, with a limited number of “reverse time-outs” available to candidates when most needed. Perhaps the most compelling change would be broadcasting the debate on a delay, allowing for a fact-checking graphical overlay or similar form of “real-time” commentary. In brief, a strong balance must be found between encouraging the unscripted elements that make the debates so compelling, and diminishing the falsehoods and blind aggression that render debates so counterproductive.