Monday, October 15, 2012

Cranky Pre-Debate Blogging

Ezra Klein writes:
I hate that debate rules are effectively set by the campaigns rather than by a body representing voters.
Okay, three things. First of all: the campaigns do represent the voters! Each candidate was duly selected by his political party; the parties are made up of....voters!

Second, and this doesn't get to his complaint, but it's worth pointing out that it's basically a miracle that we have solidly institutionalized debates in the first place. As I've said, if you like the debates, thank Ronald Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton). Reagan didn't have to debate in 1984, and probably took on a fair amount of unnecessary risk by doing it. If he had chosen not to do it there's every chance the tradition would have died right there. By 1996, the norm was far better established, but Clinton still could have made unreasonable demands and hope that negotiations broke down.

And the third point...look, I've criticized aspects of the debates, and I agree with a lot of the specific complaints about the questions that were asked (or not asked) in the first two rounds this year...but the truth is that the format used in the first two debates quite properly, in my view, gave the candidates plenty of opportunity to change the subject and switch to other topics they believed were important. Too many questions about the deficit? Then a candidate had a great opportunity to say that the deficit isn't as important as...whatever is more important than the deficit.

And anyway, you know what? The truth is that the debates don't matter all that much, and even more to the point they shouldn't matter all that much. Something important wasn't discussed? So what. The candidates have had months to talk about what they want -- and have done so, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of TV ads and other communication with the voters. I don't mind that we have debates; it's a worthwhile ritual, and a way of getting more politics where people will see it, and people seem to like them (including me!). But we shouldn't pretend that they show the "real" candidates, or that watching them is a good way of deciding one's vote choice, or that minor changes in format or question topics will affect much of anything other than immediate entertainment value, or even that they should be perfectly fair to, well, anyone. They're just not worth fighting about, really.


  1. I am sorry -- you lost me. I am a voter and neither of the two dominant parties represent me. The two parties have systematically excluded candidates who do not belong to the two party duopoly.

  2. Yes the major parties are made up of voters, I'll give you that. But both parties are smaller than the group of voters who choose to not belong to either party.

    And for those who do enter into party politics, I wouldn't consider the process exactly democratic. In my own state, the Democratic party threw out the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren's primary opponent, even though she passed state ballot access requirements with over 14,000 signatures. In the Republican caucuses, the GOP threw out all provisional ballots and then overturned the final results of an already-rigged vote. (And this is just what the parties have done in the big races.)

    The parties are private clubs and they can make up the rules as they go along. The Fourth Estate is no better -- if you're not a Republican or a Democratic candidate, you're lucky to even get mentioned in passing by the press.

    In a system totally dominated by two parties, it's not too much to ask that that other candidates be allowed to debate and be given at least perfunctory coverage by the media.

  3. So voters who chose not to belong to either major party should have a role setting the rules for a debate between the parties' nominees? Not involving yourself in Rep/Dem party politics carries fairly predictable and justifiable consequences, and one of them is that no one really cares what questions you feel the parties' nominees should have to answer, because you've rejected the parties already.

    1. Sovereignty is held by the people, not the parties, corporations, unions or any other insitutional actors. There's nothing stopping the people from regulating or changing the role parties play in our democracy. California, for example, has abolished the exclusive party primary system used in other states.

  4. And I think it is too much to ask that people who've marginalized themselves demand that no one treats them as a marginal voice.

  5. For democracy to work, you need parties -- and you need permeable, open, relatively non-hierarchical parties. So I do have some sympathy for Couves's complaint about party rules locking people out, but for the most part I think it's a fairly minimal problem.

    Of course, other candidates are free to debate as often as they want. That the press ignores such debates is not surprising.

  6. "Of course, other candidates are free to debate as often as they want. That the press ignores such debates is not surprising."

    And given that, it's hardly surprising that almost nobody votes for them either. The systematic exclusion of anyone not a Republican or a Democrat guarantees a certain outcome in our elections.

  7. The vast majority of campaigns are output-only prepackaged speeches and advertisements. In these venues, candidates are never forced to address the questionable or outright false statements they may have made previously.
    Debates are the only places where candidates might be asked hard questions that they have been avoiding, or asked to back up questionable claims. With a good moderator (or a persistent opponent), that avoidance or lack of backup becomes obvious, which encourages the candidates to be more transparent, or to make it clear to voters that there is no substance to the claim.

    When done properly, debates can be very enlightening.

  8. Regarding the debates not mattering much... before the first debate I would have absolutely agreed with you. But I am simply astounded by the amount of damage it seems to have done to Obama (e.g., Some have argued the momentum was already building for the swing, and that the timing of the debate was coincidence. I'm not so sure. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted but from everything I can discern one debate did more damage than 3 years of solid accomplishments.


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