Barack Obama is supposed to be a brilliant orator and John McCain a straight talking maverick. But if the 2008 presidential debates are any indication, then neither candidate meets the hype. Bright smiles, catchy one-liners, and pre- and post-debate spin rooms neither solve nor address economic crises, energy problems, climate change, foreign affairs, national defense, abortion, same-sex marriage, or supreme court nominations. This simple insight seems lost in our era of superficial political branding. Obama and McCain, as well as their running mates, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, seem incapable-or really, unwilling-to actually debate one another. They avoid questions, regurgitate talking points, repeat campaign slogans, speak abstractly, and most of all, dodge details of their own policies. On occasion Obama has done slightly better than McCain by varying his responses and providing a few more policy details. And Biden definitely had more substance than Palin; he answered some of the questions. But the debates, as a whole, have been nothing more than run-of-the-mill infocommercials unhelpful for deciding the next president. We as citizens deserve more and the severity of today’s issues demands better.
I have taught college courses in public communication for over ten years. This includes, among other things, public speaking, professional speaking, argumentation and debate, persuasion, performance, rhetorical theory and analysis, and public advocacy. The current candidates would not fair well in my classes. They would no doubt earn points for basic oration, body language, delivery, style, and charisma. But their arguments for and against particular public policies are seriously lacking. How exactly does your tax policy work? Who specifically is affected by your economic vision? What are the concrete details of your health care plan? How can you be sure that congress, corporations, and various industries will endorse and actually pass your legislation? These questions ask the candidates to substantiate their statements and to provide verifiable evidence. Both Obama and McCain have rarely done so. Any decent public communication instructor would address these deficiencies and then provides suggestions for improvement. But let’s be honest. These candidates are no longer students. They are powerful political leaders representing tens and even hundreds of millions of constituencies. They are seeking the most powerful office in the country. As such, they must be held to the highest standard in the land, period.
The candidates are not solely to blame for this crisis of debate. Mass media in general and twenty-hour news channels in particular provide perpetual commentary before and after each debate, placing considerable constraints on what the candidates can and cannot say. A missed cue or simple gaffe can ruin a presidential run. Candidates thus feel obligated to navigate these media landmines rather than sincerely and honestly address the issues. Debate moderators also play a role by rarely pressing for hard, definitive answers. That’s partly due to the ninety-minute time length of the debates, which demands and perpetuates sound-bite syndrome. And long, drawn out primary seasons contribute to the repetitiveness-slogans and talking points are timeworn even before the debates arrive.
We, the American people, must also take some responsibility. This begins with establishing proper criteria for assessing the presidential debates. We all see past the glitz and glam of these Hollywood debates and most of us are tired of it. But what do we actually say when we wage our critiques? How do we actually evaluate and judge the candidates’ performances? What criteria do we use to declare a winner and a loser?
Creating criteria and assessing debates is not as easy as it sounds. In the past weeks I have surveyed pre- and post-debate commentaries from all ends of the political spectrum-left, right, and mainstream sources. All have their own agenda, and that’s fine; every person is biased to some degree and absolute objectivity is a myth died long ago. But the debates are often reduced to issues of presidential temperament, delivery, proper eye contact, candidates’ attractiveness and brand value, one-liners to swing the undecideds, winning by not losing, and simply meeting or even surpassing expectations. Such criteria are fine when joking about halftime Super Bowl commercials, beauty pageants, popularity contests, and reality television shows. But these same criteria do not help us choose the best person for the presidency. Pop-culture entertainment and presidential politics involve different rules of assessment. Below are five criteria I believe worthy of consideration.
First, candidates must directly answer the questions that are asked. An inability or unwillingness to do that means they are either unqualified for or uncommitted to the job. A candidate that does not answer the question should be automatically disqualified from the debate and asked to leave the stage. That would put a stop to the elusive non-answers.
Second, candidates must specify the nature as well as the beneficial and detrimental consequences of each policy. What are the pros and cons of each policy? The candidates must also detail the necessary steps for passing each policy. What is the policy, who does it help and harm, and how will is get passed? And they cannot tell us that it helps everyone and harms no one. That’s simply not true and it’s virtually impossible.
Third, candidates must explain how and why their policies differ from one another, and they must be specific and to the point. What is the exact difference and what is the degree of that difference? If certain policies do not differ, then they must clearly state that and explain why they agree on that particular issue.
Fourth, candidates must refrain from attacking one another’s personal character during the debates. Character assessment is definitely important, but voters must decide for themselves who is more or less credible, likeable, intelligent, trustworthy, and moral. Voters will decide if candidates’ backgrounds qualify or disqualify them from the presidency. It is the job of the voters–and not the candidates–to decide who has the best political and moral judgment.
Fifth, and last, candidates must openly and honestly acknowledge their own political biases at the beginning of each debate. They must describe and explain the political lens by which they approach the issues, the presidency, and the purpose of federal governance. They must explain why they are running as Democrat, Republican, Green, Independent, etc.; and they must explain why they consider themselves to be liberal, conservative, or even moderate. They must also explain which sectors of the population will be helped and harmed by their political bias. They cannot claim that everyone will benefit. As of now, every candidate vies for the holy middle ground, as if s/he alone represents the true America. That’s impossible and deceitful. State who you are, clarify your stance, and justify your political worldview while being open and honest. Voters will then choose which political worldview is most suited for addressing the issues of today and the next four years.
Other criteria are both possible and necessary, but these establish a starting point for a sensible and rigorous bar of judgment. We can now confidently determine who won and lost and why. If both candidates happen to pass the test, then great; we can begin discussing why we as individuals side with a particular candidate. If both candidates happen to fail, then so be it. We should not apologize for failing efforts. Acknowledge your candidate’s inadequacy and then pressure the individual to step up and do better. If s/he is unwilling or unable, then it’s time to drop that candidate and choose someone else. But recognize the necessity of honesty. We must stick to the criteria, look in the mirror, and be honest with ourselves and each other. Did my candidate pass the test? If not, then have the courage to say so. Dishonesty on your end enables and even emboldens the dishonesty of the candidates. We want to avoid rather contribute to that problem.
Such issues as delivery, temperament, style, and charisma are absent from the above criteria. That’s because such qualities should be a given at the presidential level. The current fanfare with Barack Obama’s oratorical skills serves as an example. No one can deny that he is a great speaker, but so what? Obama’s eloquence should be the standard, not the exception. Finding powerful, eloquent, and articulate speakers who are politically informed and well-versed in the nuances of public policy should not be difficult in a nation of three-hundred million people. Impassioned, elegant oration is not a bonus; it’s part of the presidential job description.
Establishing these types of criteria is an empowering move-it enables us to demand more from the candidates. Too many of us resign ourselves to some kind of uncontrollable political fate, as if the debates and our democracy must be dismal and deficient. The whole thing is a mess, so why bother, right? No, wrong. We must challenge the candidates to meet rigorous expectations each and every time they speak, argue, defend, explain, and debate. They are seeking our votes. We are electing them to office. We are choosing them, not vice versa. Establish what you feel to be the most proper criteria. Be prepared to explain and defend those criteria to others. Then hold the candidates accountable. That’s a small but powerful strategy for improving the debates, the presidency, and United States democracy.