Debates: Discourse for Citizenship, or Televisual Tactic?

The Denizens took their students to Springfield, Illinois earlier this month to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, as well as selected Lincoln historic sites.It gave us a great opportunity to examine the intersection of institutional politics and public communication in the historic work of perhaps the iconic American president. Among the episodes of Lincoln’s mythic history that are highlighted in Springfield is the rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the “Little Giant” who bested the “Big Giant” in the 1858 US Senate race but lost to him in the 1860 presidential campaign. The seven 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates over “popular sovereignty” and the extension of slavery into US territories were an epic political circus at the time, launched Lincoln into the national spotlight, and became the historic archetype for debate as a component of campaign discourse.

Flash-forward fifty-three years, and we observe a pair of provocative phenomena: a candidate for president using debate challenges as a game of political chicken with opponents, and media pundits pondering whether a debate-driven campaign is actually valuable. What’s going on?

Throughout the history of rhetoric as a liberal art, dating back to classical Greece and Rome, competitive argumentation in the form of debate has been connected not only to the skills education of well-rounded citizens, but also to the capacity of citizens to engage in phronesis, or prudence — practical wisdom on public matters where decisions must be made within probable, contingent contexts. Contemporary political debates are often measured against the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a (seldom reached) ideal — as described by political debate scholar J. Jeffery Auer, one-on-one argumentative point-counterpoint on a defined proposition, presenting citizens not only with substantive policy arguments but also a measure of the candidates’ logical acumen and rhetorical eloquence. Such a contest ideally joins the poised, persuasive eloquence of political oratory with the analytical rigor of logical argumentation. It provides not only a substantive test of competing arguments on important policy matters, but also a measure of the candidates’ intelligence, acumen, command of policy detail, rhetorical leadership, and grace under pressure. What better way to make a principled, practical judgment in order to choose between candidates to do a job that requires principled, practical judgments?

When the first presidential debate was held in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy, the stage was set for what would be a new tradition in presidential campaign politics. However, the “stage” metaphor is rather apt for the phenomenon of contemporary political campaign debates. The Kennedy-Nixon debates (particularly the first one on September 26, 1960) have been hailed as a historic benchmark for American presidential campaigns, but not for their approximation of the Lincoln-Douglas ideal. As legend has it, due to a variety of factors (illness, perspiration, poor makeup, an ill-fitting suit), Nixon’s unflattering visual appearance next to Kennedy’s tan, fit, fashionable self-presentation at the first contest led television viewers to perceive Kennedy as winning the debate, while radio listeners believe Nixon won. While this myth has been seriously critiqued due to a lack of compelling historical evidence, including poor polling methodology at the time, it retains a strong currency for our popular political culture. Put briefly, a strong and attractive televisual presence is practically a job requirement for contemporary politicians, especially presidential aspirants, because voters are persuaded what they see and hear of the candidate’s human dimension, moreso than argumentative skill or command of mundane details.

As a consequence, the press, the punditry and the public have tended to evaluate candidates’ debate performances based on televisual standards: Does the candidate’s message “soundbite” well in brief, vivid, memorable phrases (think Governor Ronald Reagan’s storied 1980 “there you go again,” repeated by President Reagan in 1984, or VP candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s 1988 “you’re no Jack Kennedy)? Does the candidate project a strong, appropriately forceful presence? Does the candidate avoid notable gaffes that tarnish the desired rhetorical polish (and ostensibly reveal defects in the candidate’s public competence)? Such verbal missteps as President Gerald Ford’s 1976 “there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe” and such nonverbal embarrassments as President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 glance at his wristwatch while an audience member asked a question about the nation’s economic recession have become the stuff of political legend, and have been identified by observers as key moments in the downfall of entire campaigns.

At the same time, other observers have criticized the contemporary televised debate as more about campaign packaging and media prognostication than about the kind of public discourse designed to aid the citizen’s exercise of practical wisdom.  Jeffery Auer has described our current version as “counterfeit debates” because they do not involve direct, sustained argumentative confrontation on a single proposition. Campaign debates involve questions on numerous political and policy topics, and require candidates to limit responses anywhere from two minutes to 30 seconds at most — hardly the amount of time to develop a high-quality, evidence-based argument, and even less time to develop a complete, incisive rebuttal in response.

Evidence from research on campaign debates suggests that voters do learn from them, and to that extent they are certainly valuable. Particularly for voters who are less familiar with a candidate in the first place, debates (especially early ones) provide valuable information about candidate identities and issue positions. Of course, the flip side of this result is that such learning will tend to be thin rather than thick, surface rather than detailed.  And debate research also tells us that media coverage influences the way voters respond to debates in at least two profound ways. First, news coverage prior to a debate frames the candidates and debates in such a way that establishes popular expectations for their performance — such that even a tepid performance than exceeds expectations is viewed as a “win,” while even a solid performance that fails to meet high expectations is deemed a “loss.”  Second, post-debate news coverage of debates frames the candidate performances (and evaluates them via “instant analysis“) in ways that have been found to influence viewers’ perceptions and evaluations of candidates. Thus, candidates and their campaign surrogates play an intricate expectations game in pre-debate spin (lowering expectations for their candidate and elevating them for opponents) and in post-debate spin (making a persuasive case that their candidate won, explaining why by reinforcing pre-packaged campaign talking points). And candidates comport themselves televisually, trying to look confident, sound clear as they present soundbites prepared in advance, and focus on not screwing up.

Now, as the pre-primary GOP presidential debates of 2011 come to a close with last night’s contest in Sioux City, Iowa, we can take a brief look back at what some have argued is a unique year in the history of presidential primary debates. Some brief observations:

First, it seems clear that the current political media conventional wisdom, as well as the position of some prominent Republicans, is that 2011 has been a year when campaign debates have made a (distressingly) outsize impact on the campaign agenda. The National Journal’s Beth Reinhard quotes Senator John McCain:

If I had, frankly, a criticism of the process, it is that I think maybe we’re really getting a little too heavy on the debates.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone recently quoted CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s description of 2011 as the “year of the debate”. Another HuffPost article quotes other prominent GOP pols:

Former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein declared Thursday that “the Republican debates have become a reality show.” Former Michele Bachmann campaign manager Ed Rollins also offered frustration, albeit less pointed, earlier in the week, when he told The Hill, “Debates are good, but we’re reaching overload.”

Current headlines in the blogosphere lately include such bon mots as “The ‘increasingly intolerable’ glut of GOP debates: 4 consequences“; “Endless Republican Debate: The ‘President Gingrich’ Edition“; “Totally Not a Parody of Republican Debate Number Eleventy Zillion.”  But here’s the thing: After Beth Reinhard quotes McCain’s frustration with the number of debates this year, she points out the following:

McCain participated in 10 debates televised on major network or cable channels as of this time four years ago, missing only the PBS debate in Baltimore on September 2007, for a total of 11 debates in all. He subsequently appeared in six more before clinching the nomination.

This year, if you don’t count the May 5 debate in South Carolina that didn’t include several major candidates, Thursday’s debate in Des Moines will be – you guessed it — No. 11.  (No, I’m not counting Mike Huckabee’s Saturday night special or Donald Trump’s wanna-be reality show or the Newt Gingrich’s Lincoln-Douglas-esque debates.) Another 11 debates are proposed between Thursday and March 19th, but who knows how many of those will materialize.

So, it may well be that this year isn’t so terribly unique regarding the number of debates. So what’s going on — why all the hyperbole? Why all the concern from establishment Republicans. There are a few possible answers.

First, it is clear that, as counter-intuitive as it sometimes may seem, campaign debates can be great TV. This year it appears that debates are pulling in national news audiences that are higher — sometimes twofold — than last time around. Millions of viewers are tuning in to debates that, especially for 24-hour cable news networks looking to fill their time cheaply and effectively, provide dramatic and inexpensive programming to entice viewers. Presidential campaigns are always big news, and promise to be even bigger when the economy is in trouble and public opinion towards politicians is volatile. The debates aren’t the only show — there’s the pre-debate analysis, the post-debate analysis, the analysis in between, the analysis of the analysis… So, while the number of debates may not be escalating, the marketing power of networks like FOX News and CNN sure seems to be. Public awareness of the debates is clearly higher, and so, therefore, is the attention of the media pundit agenda.

Second, the current Republican field (with the exception of Romney and, to a lesser degree, Gingrich) is not comprised of mainstream GOP heavyweights. As Jason Linkins observes, many of the GOP’s big guns aren’t in the race, which highlights the significance of who would otherwise be relegated to fringe and celebrity candidate status, and squeezed out of a stronger field of strong, well-financed and electable candidates who can invest heavily in television advertising, on-the-ground organization, and extensive travel for retail politicking in early states. In such a field, the televised debate is a great equalizer. Despite the availability of TV ads, carefully staged campaign appearances and limited press availabilities, a poor performance in a live debate can cast doubt on a candidate’s issue knowledge, image as a quick-thinking leader, and… um… what was that third thing? Oops.

On the other side of the coin, ideological fringe candidates from the past like Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes, not to mention Ron Paul from 2008, have benefited from campaign debates to provide valuable free media exposure when expensive TV ad buys and extensive national political organizations are unavailable. Strong debate performances (especially when otherwise presumably strong candidates like Rick Perry gaffe) can help candidates build not only support bases but also media buzz, as the unlikely meteoric rise of Herman Cain illustrates.

The GOP establishment has to be looking at the apparent rollercoaster of GOP poll frontrunners (Romney, Bachmann, Romney, Perry, Romney, Cain, Gingrich,…???), the relationship between debate performances (both the star-making and cringe-inducing varieties) and these shifts in candidate preferences, and the state of the candidate field (in which the only traditional, mainstream candidate is distrusted by the party base and constantly running second to unlikely candidates) when they conclude, as Duberstein does, that the debates have taken on a “reality show” dimension. One imagines that they would much rather prefer, as has happened in previous GOP presidential primaries, that a strong mainstream candidate becomes the early and prohibitive favorite (think Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008), enabling the party to focus resources and attention on the general election to unseat President Obama. The current scenario is giving them fits.

Of course, there also seems to be, despite their audiences and potential for news fodder, some measure of “debate fatigue” among the punditocracy. While the promise of a debate hosted and moderated by Donald Trump perhaps reasonably imploded as a less-than-serious vanity exercise for a once-and-future celebrity vanity candidate, Newt Gingrich has been receiving cynical attention for his “Lincoln-Douglas” debate challenges, which to date have only attracted relative beat-up-guys Herman Cain and John Huntsman in one-on-one forums in which the formats bore little resemblance to the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates and little disagreement actually took place. Gingrich has challenged Obama to a series of seven three-hour general election debates, mirroring the 1858 series between Lincoln and Douglas. Should Gingrich win the nomination, Obama is likely to refuse to take the bait and ignore the challenge, seeing no need to risk either showcasing Gingrich’s debate strengths or gaffing himself. And the media covering this challenge tend to agree (e.g., the Washington Post, ABC News) that the challenge itself is unrealistic and little more than a tactic Gingrich is using to get favorable campaign attention.

But consider: part of the anxiety over the prominence of debates this year has come from the concomitant declines in other forms of traditional pre-primary campaigning. Note:

What we appear to have this year is a pre-primary season in which debates before larger public audiences, rather than powerful campaign organizations and the big money they raise to fund TV ads and travel to appearances before small retail audiences, are driving the fates of presidential candidates.  Such a model irks the mainstream media and political establishments, to be sure.

But I wonder if this is such a bad thing.  Would Republicans, for instance, prefer to see Rick Perry’s incapacity for extemporaneous argument and weak command of policy details in a general election debate with Barack Obama, because his nomination was made possible by heavy television advertising, intense organization among evangelical conservatives, and limited exposure to the news media?  There’s something about the fates of candidates for the most powerful office in the world riding on their ability to communicate coherently, in competition with others, live and unedited on freely available media, that gives this rhetorician some hope for our political communication system. These debates are far from perfect. But I’ll take them before a negative ad war any day.



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