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Voters, Start Your Engines

A Commentary By Cordel Faulk

Presidential debate season is upon us. That means John McCain, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Sarah Palin are traveling around the country with huge binders of prep materials under their arms---and dreams of an eight-year relationship with the Secret Service dancing in their heads.

For the rest of us, however, we're getting ready to tune into the political equivalent of a NASCAR race. NASCAR and the presidential race are analogous? Indeed they are, and here's why:

Lots of important things are going on during a NASCAR race. A great deal of strategy is involved with maneuvering an automobile around a crowded track at 200-plus miles per hour and either taking or keeping a lead. NASCAR requires an enormous amount of skill, and that's why the same few drivers win almost all the races---because it's not easy. But, let's be honest, NASCAR fans show up at the track and are glued to the excitement first and foremost for one reason: They want to see a crash (non-fatal, of course), and preferably several of them. It's a disappointment if one doesn't happen.

And ladies and gentlemen, the same principle applies to presidential debates. The candidates discuss many important issues, and they try to look and sound presidential. The public pays attention, for the most part, but it waits for one thing first and foremost: "the crash."

To test this, think about presidential debates in the modern era (since 1960). Does anyone remember the riveting colloquy Sen. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in about the future of U.S. foreign policy as it related to the Pacific Islands Quemoy and Matsu? No. Everyone remembers how a lightly bearded Nixon and his pasty skin didn't look as appealing and presidential as Kennedy. And for that, history judges Kennedy the winner. Not because he had superior debating skills---which may or may not have been the case---but because he was prettier than Richard Nixon on television.

(Oh, how I wish I was joking.)

Are presidential debates still useful? Let's explore that question after we consider the fun stuff: history's best NASCAR-esque presidential debate crashes (all were thankfully non-fatal, of course).

We handled Nixon's 1960 beard, so let's skip to President Gerald Ford's 1976 crash during his debate with former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. To the transcript (from the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates web site):

MAX FRANKEL: Mr. President, I'd like to explore a little more deeply our relationship with the Russians ... We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe. ... Is that what you call a two-way street of traffic in Europe?

MR. FORD: I believe that we have uh --- negotiated with the Soviet Union since I've been president from a position of strength... There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

!!!SCREECH!!! ... !!!BAM!!! ... [Smell of burning tires] ...

Some younger readers of the Crystal Ball may not remember the 1970s, but the prevailing sentiment among just about every other person on the planet was that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe---even during the Ford Administration. Frankel, dumbfounded by Ford's answer, tried to give the president a chance to clarify his remark by asking him to talk a little further about his answer, but the fact that attempt to dig deeper is not included here tells you all you need to know about the president's follow-up "clarification." It didn't clarify much.

Carter's reaction to Ford's gaffe---as described in non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates' transcript---is telling:

Moderator PAULINE FREDERICK: Governor Carter, may I have your response?

MR. CARTER: (chuckle) ...

Historians have concluded what Ford meant to say was that Eastern Europeans did not feel dominated by the Soviet Union in their hearts and minds. But when a sentence has to begin with "Historians have concluded what [insert presidential candidate] meant to say was ..." that's an epic debate crash. Does anyone remember Ford's later discussion of normalizing relations with North Vietnam? Maybe, but most likely ... no. President Carter had his own bad night four years later when former Gov. Ronald Reagan shoved Carter's car into the wall during their one debate, then drove around the track and knocked the Georgian's smoking vehicle back into the wall just to make sure it was engulfed in flames.

Back to the commission's transcripts, and the four words that battered Carter's re-election chances:

MR. REAGAN: There you go again ...

How many people remember what Carter attack Reagan was responding to when he spoke those four simple words? Only the most dedicated political junkies. (Carter had just accused Reagan of being opposed to Social Security and Medicare/national health insurance.) But it got worse for Carter, after Reagan said this:

MR. REAGAN: Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?

That was probably the highpoint for memorable debate substance. Reagan hadn't just turned a cute phrase that made people laugh. He had condensed the campaign down into a single substantive question that broke the election wide-open in his favor. Up until that point, the 1980 presidential contest had been polling fairly close. People didn't necessarily want to keep Carter, but could they hand the government over to Reagan? During the debate Reagan looked and sounded more presidential than Carter, and the Californians' question led debate listeners to the answer: "Well he can't do any worse than Carter, and he might do better."

During the 1980 debate Carter also talked about his elementary-age daughter Amy's thoughts on nuclear proliferation, but let's ignore that and just acknowledge that he had a historically bad debate night.

Okay, quick, name something memorable said during the 1984 presidential debates. I bet the vast majority of people remember this exchange involving Reagan:

The Baltimore Sun's HENRY TREWHITT: [S]ome of your staff say you were tired after your most recent [debate] with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

THE PRESIDENT: Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience. [Laughter and applause]

That even left Mondale laughing. Anything else memorable about the 1984 debates? I bet not.

Let's go through that exercise with the 1988 debates. They began brutally for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Moderator Bernard Shaw started by saying, (1) Hello and welcome, then (2) moved right into this query:

SHAW: [T]he first question goes to Gov. Dukakis. You have two minutes to respond. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

Most people probably can't quote from the answer (and we won't here), but they know Dukakis gave such a bloodless answer about the rape and murder of his wife that he might as well have been talking about a Tandy computer.

Remember anything else about the 1988 debates, except for Lloyd Bentsen proving beyond a benefit of a doubt that Dan Quayle was not Jack Kennedy? (Bentsen did it by citing his friendship with the Massachusetts president, despite there being no evidence the two men were confidants.) For the vast majority of people, the answer likely is a resounding no. Only the crashes survive.

How about the "great debates" of 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004? Those can be handled in just a few sentences:

1992: President George H. W. Bush looked at his watch during a new debate format--- the multi-candidate town hall meeting---and made people think he was tired of the campaign and dealing with the White House. Bill Clinton almost went as far as to hug everyone in the audience.

1996: Check the transcripts for yourself , but there weren't really any crashes in these debates. Which probably means even astute political observers can't cite a single thing said in them other than "a, an, and the."

2000: Al Gore sighed a lot, and despite terribly low expectations George Bush did put together sentences.

2004: See 1996. Here is a link to the transcript.

So how useful are debates? Not very. Reagan filleted Mondale with a joke about his youth. Who cares? Is that really the foundation on which we want to base a debate win? It shouldn't be.

Modern debates aren't Lincoln-Douglas affairs where the two candidates spend hours challenging every grain of his opponent's party platform. Today what we have is dueling press conference during which the candidates first try to do no harm to their own campaigns, and second, they attempt to say something Reaganesque (and in almost 30 years no one else has). Let's remove the distractions from these things, and give the public a dose of substance.

Plainly put, it's time to end modern presidential debates as we know them.

But let's resolve to replace them with something better. How about this two pronged approach:

(1) Hold single-candidate, nationally televised, town-hall meetings populated by question-wielding voters and a moderator who is charged with asking only follow-up questions and keeping the event running on time. Don't put the candidates in the same room answering the same questions from the same journalists they have been talking to throughout the campaign. Split the candidates up, and put them in separate rooms full of carefully chosen voters (a function that can be handled by the Commission on Presidential Debates), and let the nominees answer those citizen's questions. By not having the candidates dueling in the same arena, it reduces the pressure for them to thrust and parry with one another instead of addressing the issues; it puts the focus squarely where it belongs: on the issues the American people want discussed. Allowing the moderator to ask only follow-up questions means the events likely will not be bogged down in queries about the presidential election process---but the journalist-moderator will be allowed to serve the roll his (or her) profession serves best: peeling back the layers of the onion.

(2) For those who like to test the agility of the candidates' minds---and give them a chance to answer the campaign charges of their opponent face-to-face---hold one true Lincoln-Douglas debate for an hour and a half and let them defend their plans and their claims. Have a moderator there to enforce the rules and keep decorum, but basically, they should stay out of the action.

The importance and impact of presidential debates shouldn't be the political equivalent of a NASCAR crash---fun (when non-fatal), but ultimately of minimal value. Let McCain and Obama, Biden and Palin have their great dueling press conferences of 2008, but in 2012 why not try to come up with something better?

Cordel Faulk is the director of communications at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

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