Column: Our presidential debates are a national embarrassment

I hate the presidential debates. The celebration, the paean to engagement and democracy, the inevitable infestation of my Twitter feed with banal observations and mock outrage. It’s the worst thing. The only thing worse than the things about the debates are, of course, the debates themselves. See, I love debating. It’s my favorite thing to do. But on Tuesday night, as President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney take the stage in Long Island, a debate isn’t what’s going to happen.

Instead what we’ll hear is a parade of poll-tested statements from each candidate, each meant to inflame the particular passions of whatever target demographic is the key in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Are you unemployed? You’ll love Romney’s five-step plan to restore America. Are you a student? Just wait until you hear how Obama’s saved student loans. Some of these statements are true; some are false. But the word “debate” is a misnomer — even during the remarkably rowdy vice-presidential scuffle last Thursday, actual dialogue between Biden and Ryan was rare.

It’s hard to blame the candidates. The risks in engaging in conversation with an opponent on national television are staggering. It's much safer to stare the camera in the eye and talk to the voter than look at your opponent and argue about minutiae the median voter knows nothing about. Debating skill, after all, has precious little to do with whether you’re a good president or not. Courage, political skill, and intelligence — all the traits we associate with a successful presidency — are entirely unnecessary to be a talented debater. Jimmy Carter soundly thumped Gerald Ford in the 1974 debates on the way to a presidency that was alternately irrelevant and incompetent. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was so scared of the 1980 debates that he refused to take the stage alone against President Carter until two weeks before Election Day. Terrible policies aside, Reagan’s presidency was remarkably effective at shaping policy and controlling the agenda.

The irony of the debates is they’re only useful when the candidates aren’t debating. Debates have one, and only one, legitimate use for the American people: They give low-information voters an opportunity to discover the basic beliefs of the candidates. Fifty-eight million people watched the first presidential debate last week. Most of them had very little idea what, exactly, is going on in their government. They are scared by the phrase “death panel” and “fiscal cliff” but don’t fully understand what these things are. When the candidates are looking at 58 million people and saying what they think, a decent education is being given. When Obama and Romney haggle over the specific size of Romney’s tax cut or explore the fate of Big Bird, valuable time is being wasted. Wading into the policy weeds to convince already-educated voters of some relatively small point is hopeless. Educated voters are overwhelmingly partisan voters, and partisan voters are simply not going to be persuaded to vote for a different candidate in the course of a debate. Can you name anyone who changed their planned vote after Obama got walloped last week? I didn’t think so.

If you’re an uneducated voter, watch the debates. But if you consider yourself educated, if you consider yourself locked into an ideology or candidate, don’t bother. They’re not for you. Instead, I suggest you try to understand. Understand the candidate’s simple language reflects poorly not on the candidates, but on their audience. Understand awful debates are the result of a nation’s leaders coping with a perilously uninterested citizenry. Understand all of this and join me, not in celebrating our debates, but in hating them.

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