The problem with too many debates

What role should debates have in political campaigning? That’s the question being raised by this Republican presidential primary season.

Some prominent Republicans are worried that the nonstop series of GOP debates has done their party more harm than good by showcasing all the differences among the candidates. But others disagree precisely because the debates have given the candidates a chance to air their opinions. “I think they’ve been the most important primary debates in our history. Certainly the most important I’ve ever covered,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said on the night of the Florida primary.

The debates’ impact on the campaign is interesting, but they raise a larger issue that shouldn’t get lost in presidential horse-race coverage. It has to do with how the average voter gets to know a candidate, whether for the presidency or for a seat in Congress — and what we ought to know about a candidate before we make up our minds. Can we devise a political campaign in this country that allows us to get beyond the debates’ one-liners, superficial answers and stage-managed images, to an in-depth, wide-open discussion with opportunity for extensive follow-up?

There’s no question that debates have some value. Structured properly, they make a candidate put forth his or her ideas, give us a glimpse of how they behave under pressure, and allow us to get a sense of what the candidates — and sometimes the party as a whole — believe the campaign is about.

But there can be too much of a good thing. Preparing for many debates cuts hugely into the time a candidate spends with actual voters (rather than the media who control the debates), listening to their concerns, taking the temperature of the electorate, deepening the campaign’s message and building its organization and outreach. It’s important for candidates to get to know the electorate in the work place, at diners, in places of worship, at service-club meetings and shopping malls and even political rallies. Debates move the candidate toward the television screen and in some important ways away from the voter.

More fundamentally, it’s worth asking to what extent debates give voters the information they need to make discriminating choices. You want a politician to be able to think on her feet and to be articulate, of course; agility with both words and ideas is a valuable political skill. But in public officials we want more than a good debater. Debates tend to harden candidates’ positions, rewarding indignation and forcefully stated convictions. They show us nothing of a candidate’s ability to work toward common ground with people who disagree — which is, of course, the essence of governing. And debates steer candidates away from in-depth exploration of complex issues — witness, for instance, the almost total lack of foreign-policy discussion in the series of GOP presidential debates.

There are ways to handle some of these shortcomings, of course. Debates could benefit from avoiding the one-minute-statement, 30-second-rebuttal format, and instead allow for true discussion in a format that would allow voters to see how the candidates address major issues in reasonable juxtaposition with one another. After all, that’s what elected officials have to be able to do — so why not let the electorate see them at it before they get elected?

There are many important qualities that debates do not test: the ability to build consensus, to work with people of differing opinions and backgrounds, to make sound judgments about what’s best for the country, to sort through complex issues and arrive at proposals that move the nation forward. These are qualities that voters can gauge only by seeing candidates in action on the stump, by hearing them explain in depth how they would approach our big challenges, and by watching them as they encounter people from all walks of life.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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