Presidential Debate Preview From A College Debater's Perspective
In reality, though, I started debating as a freshman in high school. From the moment I gave my first speech, I had a feeling that debate was something I was going to be passionate about. And my intuition was right. My love for debate took me to the finals of the state championship, then to the finals of the national championship and eventually it brought me to the University of Southern California (USC), where I’m currently a member of the policy debate team.
I love testing arguments, challenging assumptions, hearing new perspectives and all of the things that come with debating; which is why the presidential debates disappoint me as much as they do.
Every four years, the talking heads on cable news, talk radio and the campaigns tell us about the showdown we’re going to see when the candidates meet on stage for the first debate. The nation tunes in to a primetime broadcast expecting to see Ali-Frazier but instead we’re treated to a good old fashioned mud-wrestling match - only in mud wrestling the contestants aren’t as slippery.
It sounds like I’m exaggerating (and trust me, I wish I was) but I doubt you can think of a single instance when you watched a presidential candidate answer a question and thought to yourself, “Gee, that is a perspective I’ve never thought of before.” That “aha” moment should happen all time, considering how smart and worldly the finalists for the position of commander-in-chief always are. Our last four Republican and Democratic nominees for President ('04 and '08) included people with six Ivy League degrees, a former Secretary of Defense, and two decorated war heroes. Yet, none of them had anything enlightening to say when given a microphone and asked to run rhetorical circles around the person trying to take the Oval Office away from them.
Even the “legendary moments” in presidential debate history have absolutely nothing to do with substantive arguments. The 1960 contest between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon will go down in history not because the two candidates made well-developed arguments about the direction of the country, but because Nixon’s makeup was done poorly and he looked a little sweaty. The 1988 vice presidential debate between Dan Quale and Lloyd Bentsen isn’t revered for its discussion of the issues, but because Bentsen really “zinged” Quale with that “you’re no Jack Kennedy comment.” The 2000 debates are only notable because Al Gore looked really awkward. The list of memorable moments that have nothing to do with the arguments made could go on and on.
Campaigns have become adept at coaching their candidates on how to pivot out of answering a question. The contenders for leader of the free world will talk at length about everything but the question at hand.
This isn’t the only problem with the presidential debate process, though. With Romney falling behind in the polls, commentators on the right, left and in the center have said if he doesn’t win the first debate then he’s finished. But has anyone stopped to ask what it means to “win a presidential debate”? In high school and college debates, we have judges (coaches or former debaters) who make these decisions. But who has the final say on whether Romney or Obama walks away from Wednesday night's “showdown” with bragging rights? Is it Fox News? Is It MSNBC? I would’ve won a few more national championships if all I had to do was get my friends to say they’d thought I’d won each of my debates.
The American people deserve better than what they’re getting from these debates. Both sides of the aisle have colluded to give us a substance-free televised debacle. This might have been acceptable in earlier times, but our nation is confronting monumental challenges that need to be addressed with more than a regurgitation of a stump speech talking point.
How are we going to resolve the looming entitlement crisis? What will the government do to prevent catastrophic climate change? How will our foreign policy adapt to accommodate (or deter) the rise of China? These are only a few of the questions that the American people deserve detailed answers to. Sadly, I have little faith that we will get them.
I’ve participated in over 500 debates in my career. I’ve watched hundreds more, and judged almost as many. What saddens me is that Wednesday night’s contest promises to be among the worst I’ve seen.