Responding to the Presidential Debate Crisis

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.

Jason Del Gandio is author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (New Society, 2008) and an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University in Philadelphia. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Jason, or visit Jason's website.

14 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. rosemarie jackowski said on October 13th, 2008 at 11:13am #

    The most important part of the debate about debates seems to be missing here. No candidate who has even an inkling of respect for the democratic process would participate in any debate that excluded other candidates. McCain/Obama and the Debate Commission have entered into a conspiracy to exclude other candidates. (Read the contract.) Nader is on 45 State ballots. That makes him a legitimate candidate who has a chance of winning the election. I suggest that everyone pull up the contract that set up this years debates.

    Also, if there is anyone out there who does not yet know the candidates positions on health care, war, and the economy, I urge them to stay home on election day. We have far too many uninformed voters.

    Also, being a great orator does not necessarily make for a good president. Hitler was a great orator.

  2. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 13th, 2008 at 11:39am #

    s[eaking for self ab. socalled oratory; ‘brilliant’, not so ‘brilliant’, or of whatever kind, u’d have to pay me to listen to or read it.
    to me, it is a behavior w.o. content. it’s not only useless for learning anything but also quite deceptive. tnx

  3. Martha said on October 13th, 2008 at 12:23pm #

    If Rosemarie’s comment was included in the essay, I’d call it brilliant. Great essay and great comment Rosemarie.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on October 13th, 2008 at 1:01pm #

    Martha…Thank you for your support. Please, click the link. I wrote on a similar topic a while back.

  5. Beverly said on October 13th, 2008 at 7:26pm #

    I blame the media the most for not only the sham debates, but overall campaign coverage. Politicians will NEVER willingly provide a straight answer; it’s to their advantage to bamboozle and confuse. It’s the media’s job to force them to explain their positions and then challenge their responses with fact-based info.

    Regardless of the length of debates, moderators could do a better job of asking relevant questions, including follow-up inquiries. Further, the campaign season is long enough to schedule more debates. For primaries where there often 6-8 candidates, half could debate one night, the other half the following night.

    Post debate chatter should involve not pundit prattle over polls and “who won”, but experts of all political persuasions in key domestic and foreign policy areas discussing the merits/workability of candidates’ positions.

    I agree 200% with Rosemarie J. that the debates make a sham of so-called democracy when third party/independent candidates aren’t included. Shamocracy runs amok even during the primaries when candidates from even major parties (see: Kucinich and Paul) are excluded from some primary debates.

    Unfortunately, the media has abandoned any pretense of journalism to become stenos, cheerleaders, and misleaders for the political and corporate classes.

    As for Joe/Jane Public, far too many people have been reared on the non/mis/disinformation of mainstream media to be able to determine that the debates and political coverage are total crap. I work in a courthouse, and have had two judges gush over the debates – both were shocked I wasn’t going to be glued in front of the TV watching them. The less-educated worker bees aren’t much better. I’ve overheard people giddy with excitement and planning to make a night of it – popping popcorn and everything. These folks couldn’t decipher what real news is, much less what constitutes a real debate, if their lives depended on it.

    I try to turn on those who are receptive to alternative sources such as this site and Counterpunch but it’s an uphill battle. Most aren’t going to spend time reading lengthy articles, others lack the time to do so or are without a computer. If only we could get these alternative sources’ journalists and contributors on a major TV network. The 20 (or 50)-inch screen appears the best way to educate the voters on what they are missing and what they need to be demanding from those who want their votes.

  6. Poilu said on October 14th, 2008 at 3:51am #

    [OT News]: Scratch one imperial proxy war!:

    Ethiopian occupation troop’s pull-out leaves “government” on brink

    ‘Ethiopia, which launched a US-backed military intervention in Somalia in December 2006 in an effort to drive out an Islamist authority in Mogadishu, is now pulling out its troops.’

  7. Jason Del Gandio said on October 14th, 2008 at 5:46am #


    I completely agree that Nader–or any other major third party candidates–should be able to debate. The two-party system is a hypocrisy and no doubt limits the range of discussion and range of democratic choices. It basically sets the agenda for what people consider to be “worthy” and “unworthy” topics and issues–like the two-party system itself. I also agree with Beverly that the media plays a big role in all of this. But I decided to save such matters and critiques for another essay 🙂

    Thanks for the comments — Jason.

  8. Kyle Martin said on October 14th, 2008 at 6:46pm #

    t’s sad how soundbites and slogans dominate the debates. I blame Mondale. Although, Washington and Lincoln must’ve had savvy PR teams.

    Anyhow, both presidential candidates prove they have no respect for their constituency, as they continuously rattle off buzz words in hopes it’ll win votes or even inspire; when in reality they’re talking down to us like we’re children. It’s obvious McCain and Palin fall victim to this more than Obama and Biden.

    To get beyond buzzwords and slogans would mean these politicians would actually have to do something that is rarely done in today’s society: Tell the truth.

    Hey, that’s a three-word slogan. Perhaps I can put that on some T-shirts and sell it to all those Joe Six Packs, Mavericks and those individuals who want “A change they can believe in”? I think I just threw up in my mouth.

    Both candidates are part of the same hypocrisy. With Nader not being involved in the debate, it reinforces the notion that the two party system in the United States is fraudulent and money-driven. But I guess we already knew that. But why do we remain apathetic? Everyone has reasons. I understand. I’m not trying to call anyone out, especially since I’m not out on the revolutionary front with my mega phone and anti-establishment fist shaking.

    I think most individuals feel obligated to “get” something out of the debates in fear their co-workers and peers will make them feel mentally inferior. Therefore, everyone tends to overanalyze and nitpick. But how can you nitpick a discussion with few merits? It would be like dissecting an episode of (insert name of trite NBC sitcom; I’m going with the universally despised “Friends”) to find a deeper meaning of why Joey ate Chandler’s sandwich.

    We face real problems as a nation. These problems cannot be explained in soundbites or the like. Unfortunately, lengthy discussions by would-be leaders are not popular in a society with unlimited entertainment options.

    Maybe we really are a nation of children?

  9. Deadbeat said on October 14th, 2008 at 7:04pm #

    All the comments are valid however the missing aspect when talking about the “debates” is the assumption that the United States is a democracy.

    As Rosemarie points out the Debate commission is a sham especially after they took the “debates” away from the League of Women Voters after they allowed John Anderson to participate in 1980.

    Beverly is right to blame the networks.

    But the real problem is the lack of democracy. The media was taken away from the people for decades and monopolization is making matters worse.

    I don’t think fighting for a place on the debate is going to work unless the people in some way shape or form can wrestle power away from the networks and to reclaim the airwaves for the people.

    I recall Howard Dean during his 2004 campaign mentioning enforcing Sherman Anti-Trust and not long after his campaign went down in flames.

    The media will continue to pacify the public until they are broken up into little pieces or the public can regain control.

  10. David said on October 14th, 2008 at 7:28pm #

    Mr. Del Gandio:

    Thank you for a most interesting article.

    At the close of your first paragraph you have written, “We as citizens deserve more and the severity of today’s issues demands better.”

    Just why, do you suppose, we deserve more? What data do you have to support this claim? It appears to me that you are not following your own advice, having here made an emotional appeal without supporting it with a rationale.

    In the fourth paragraph you write that we should “…[establish] proper criteria for assessing the presidential debates.” but you never tell us how to do this. This would be very valuable information.

    Following this, you offer, “We all see past the glitz and glam…” Well… I’m sure that you can see where this one is going.

    Later in your piece you bring forth the ubiquitous laundry list (First, Second, etc…) but fail to inform us as to how you would get agreement from the debating parties as to how they could be brought to embrace your very worthwhile points.

    Is this agreement not necessary as a prerequisite to executing the list? And, is the list not largely meaningless without it except as an academic argument?

  11. Max Shields said on October 15th, 2008 at 6:40am #

    Deadbeat, at last we are in agreement.

  12. bozhidar bob balkas said on October 15th, 2008 at 8:04am #

    no, i haven’t assumed that US is a democracy.
    i have known; ie, evaluated for decades that US had oneparty governance.
    with plutocrats (uncle’s) supervision.
    how had uncle dealt w. nixon (for trivial reasons)?
    compare it w. what uncle is doing now to or for bush?
    a prez doesn’t appear to me that mighty as spewers of mythology wants us to believe.thnx

  13. Martha said on October 15th, 2008 at 8:59am #

    Rosemarie, thank you. That was a wonderful article. So wonderful, I’m putting the link back in.

  14. rosemarie jackowski said on October 15th, 2008 at 12:16pm #

    Martha…Thank you. More than 100 of my articles have been published on the Internet. One titled ‘To Vote, or Not to Vote’ has recently been selected by some college profs to be used for analysis and discussion. It is causing some controversy. You might like it.
    Here is a link.