MODERATOR: Mr. Honda, can you give us your analysis of the current situation in the Middle East and how you would help bring peace to the region? You have one minute.
(blah, blah, blah)
MODERATOR: Mr. Khanna, you will have a 90-second rebuttal and Mr. Honda will have 30 seconds to respond.
(blah, blah, blah)
Solving the problems of the Middle East in three minutes. How do we judge a debate?
We ask ignorant or disingenuous “undecided” voters who they thought “won.” Usually with such penetrating analysis as, “I don’t think he was talking to me;” or, “He didn’t come across as a guy I could have a beer with.”
Then we ask the spin-doctors to give their analysis. Spoiler alert: Regardless of how the debate went, their candidate “won.”
And finally, this reality show is analyzed by a group of “experts,” who are mostly political hacks with a history of losing campaigns, which is why they are now analysts. Their opinion boils down to something like, “Our instant poll says Honda won because he was more likable and came across as knowledgeable and more experienced. In addition, many folks just didn’t like Ro Khanna’s haircut and thought he could have picked a nicer tie.”
Yes, political debates are part American Idol, part Survivor.
Think about memorable moments of Presidential debates gone-by.
John F. Kennedy looked better on television (thanks to makeup), while Nixon sweated under the lights. Gerald Ford seemed oblivious to the Soviet Union’s influence on Poland. Jimmy Carter asked his daughter Amy about nuclear weapons. There was Walter Mondale’s “where’s the beef?” retort to Gary Hart. Michael Dukakis failed to show any human emotion when asked a death penalty question that invoked his wife as a victim. George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton. Al Gore won all of the debates against George W. Bush and still had the election stolen by a runaway Supreme Court.
The 100-plus debates in the most recent Republican primary reduced Mitt Romney to a pandering chameleon. Rick Perry’s “whoops” moment showed his lack of knowledge about the current U.S. Cabinet.
It’s all great theatre, but not an ounce of substance is learned about what it takes to be President of the United States.
Real decisions are not made in 60-second sound bites. It’s not a big deal if a person makes a rhetorical mistake in the Oval Office, but look at your watch, take too long of a drink of water, grimace at your opponent—all this somehow tells people about your character and credentials for public office.
Is this how voters should be making decisions?
People watch these debates for the same reason that they sit in the seats most likely to have a clean view of accidents in NASCAR races—it’s the entertainment value and wrecks that sell tickets.
But this is not the best way for the populace to choose a leader, despite media cries to the contrary. The media has the most interest is seeing a train wreck from a candidate. In today’s 24-hour cable news industry they can fill three days with mindless dribble about who looked better on television.
Debates make no difference in campaigns, especially in races where one candidate is so strong, that to share a stage with their opponent is a waste of time for the electorate and themselves. The marginal candidates relish the attention of being seen as an equal, if only for a short period of time. They also gain a forum to spout their tin-hat grievances, conspiracies and simplistic solutions to complex problems facing society.
That’s why strong candidates refuse to debate. It is why Mike Honda will not give Ro Khanna the time of day. It is why Don Rocha doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with Lois Wilco-Owens. And it’s why Zoe Lofgren still likely won’t meet Johnny Lee, even after the election. I know. Johnny who?
And that’s the point.
(Editor’s note: Rich Robinson has been a long-time support of Congressman Honda and held a fundraiser on his behalf earlier this year.)