From The Complaints Dept.

I just finished watching the second "town hall style" debate and before I say what I thought, let me make one complaint. Everyone in the country is obsessed with determining who won the debate, which is fundamentally stupid in my opinion.

In my understanding the debate was originally used as a forum for educating the voters about the issues and helping them to see the differences in the candidates' stances on the issues. The debates used to be informational affairs where candidates truly extemporaneously engaged the issues and debated stances and solutions. Today, can anyone honestly say that after a debate their understanding of the issues is deepened? Of course there will be some people for whom the debates will be their only exposure to the issues. But for the rest of the people, for whom the issues addressed in the debate will be predictable and nothing new, there are no great breakthroughs or revelations to be made in watching the debates. It's simply candidate A reciting the same stump speech talking points that everyone has already heard and candidate B reciting his while asserting that his are better. Today it is just one more test at which the candidates must succeed in order to prove themselves presidential material.

Now, I'm all for subjecting the candidates to challenges to see what they're made of, but one must ask, exactly what does the process of going through the debate prove in a candidate? Will it elucidate their knowledge and grasp of policy issues? Not the way the debates work now, with candidates robotically recycling stump speeches or regurgitating pre-learned, prefabricated answers to generic questions. Does it demonstrate their ability to hold up under pressure? Yes, but in the context of public speaking! And frankly that doesn't mean that much. Does it demonstrate, their ability to compete? Given that the format discourages any kind of direct confrontation I'd say no. It would be another thing if the debates took place in a roundtable-like setting, where they were actually allowed to address the other candidate, or ask and answer direct questions. Unfortunately, the way it is now candidates have at most the opportunity to request a thirty second rebuttal in which to expound on something the other candidate said.

Then the other question is, what does it even mean to win the debate? It's not as if the debate is being scored by impartial judges (unless you think that the media are effective impartial judges) according to a set of definite criteria and therefore there is a clear objective winner and loser. There are, I'm sure, lots of criteria floating around out there used by different people, like "The winner is the one who most persuasively argued his positions" or "The winner was the one who attacked the other candidate's arguments most effectively" or "The winner is the one who appeared most self-contained and self-assured," "The winner was the one who came off more presidential." The potential for all sorts of stupid criteria is vast. Even wading out the stupid stuff, the more common, accepted criteria would seem to be the same as those used to define a good debater in general: making strong, clear arguments. Showing obvious preparation and knowledge of the subject matter and not straying from the topic. Citing numerous and relevant facts to support those arguments. Good counter-responses to the opponent's arguments. Finally, maybe you'd find some things about style such as overall persuasiveness and facility with using language. So, the most optimistic view of how we evaluate the candidates would suggest that winning the debate confirms that you are a good debater, which has no bearing in my opinion on your ability to be president.

In reality, unless we are judging a debate competition according to debate rules, there is no meaningful way to say that one of the candidates won the debate. John Kerry could "win" because he had more at stake, and he pulled through the debate without totally messing it up and ruining his chances altogether. He could also "win" because he successfully countered allegations that he was a flip-flopper, which while a political liability for him, is external to and has nothing to do with the debates. George Bush could "win" because everyone's expectations of him were so low that when he managed to integrate his memorized lines relatively seamlessly without producing anything incoherent he was considered a success. He could also "win" because he stood on stage and maintained a minimum level of likeability while his opponent said and did destructive things (read: Bush/Gore debate).

Therefore, the whole business of establishing who won the debate is dumb and meaningless. You could say that Kerry used more facts and statistics to back up his points, or that Bush did a better job of making clear exactly where he stood on the issues. You could say that Kerry had more information at his fingertips, and that he was able to fill his speaking time with fresh and relevant material, or that Bush won over more of the audience. To base a win on any one of these things is limited and stupid, and unless we're using an array of sensible and objective criteria to evaluate the performances, there's no point in trying to determine a winner. Rather I think the debates should be refocused on the essential parameters, which are, what are the candidates' positions? how well did they explain their rationale for having these positions? who has the better positions? were they able to debunk their opponent's positions? how good of a grasp did they demonstrate of the topics of the questions? Clearly if one candidate performed miserably in all of these areas, you could say he lost the debate, in the sense that the debate has not served him favorably. But the idea that the debate is some kind of matchup zero-sum competition is just dumb.

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