Saturday, October 30, 2004

Debating the Debates

Ed Driscoll points to a piece by Fred Barnes about the debates:

...The traits we look for in a president are wisdom, steadfastness, foresight, integrity, inner strength, emotional intelligence, and the willingness to do what's unpopular but right. If there's been a presidential debate that gave us a glimpse of these in a candidate, I missed that one. Instead, I've watched debate after debate that provided only the shallowest of impressions about a candidate....

Now think about a few presidents who served before the advent of televised debates--George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower. I doubt if any of them would have fared well in a debate. Washington was too aloof, Madison too short. Jackson had a hair-trigger temper. Grant was a great writer but not as good a talker. Up against William Jennings Bryan, McKinley would have been overpowered. Johnson talked too slowly and Ike had trouble putting together a sentence with a subject and verb in the right place. All of them would have lost debates and maybe the presidency. Yet most were presidents of great merit.

Another worthwhile test of the value of debates is to consider the 1964, 1968, and 1972 presidential campaigns, the ones with no debates. Were the issues clearly drawn in those campaigns? Yes. Were the differences between the candidates clear? For sure. Did we manage to get insights into the character of the candidates? I think so....

Driscoll adds this:
Given President Bush's unspoken war against the leftwing legacy media (and vice-versa), I'm kind of surprised he didn't choose to use this campaign to say "no mas" to the debates.
My own take:
If Bush loses, it will because he debated Kerry, period. I know that it's unseemly for a sitting president to refuse to participate in the quadrennial test of cramming and makeup. But the debates do nothing but show how well a candidate can perform in the artificial setting of live TV. The debates have nothing to do with governance and everything to do with performance (in the showbiz sense).

Bush should have refused to participate in the debates, on the ground that he has more pressing things to do, such as prosecute a war. His refusal might have cost him a few points in the polls, but that's nothing compared with the damage he has suffered by giving Kerry an opportunity to feign gravitas.