Why do we even bother with debates?

Moving to Canada
Moving to Canada. Austin Gerth.

To be honest I only watched half of last week’s Republican debate. And the only reason I watched any of it at all was to write a piece about it, since this column is about politics, and since that debate is what’s going on in politics right now. I want this column to be about problems with the nature of our political conversation, and debates are a big part of that conversation, but they also tend to bum me out.

I’m skeptical of the usefulness of televised debates. If you pay attention during one, you’ll find that the manner of speaking most candidates employ in debates is nearly as opaque, in its own way, as a dense passage of existential philosophy. Sometimes a speech or a piece of writing is complicated because it strives to describe something commensurately complicated. The language of U.S. political debate is the opposite: the goal is often to elaborately say nothing concrete in a way that comforts people who watch 24-hour news.

Perhaps this is the writing major in me talking, but I think we would be much better off if our presidential debates were conducted in writing. There’s just not enough time for each candidate’s responses to complicated issues to be cogently illustrated when all those candidates are talking at each other in a room. Complex networks of national and international cause and effect end up being shorthanded into empty phrases like “status quo,” and “special interests,” which are delivered with no explanation; vague references are made to a “system,” which is “broken,” but little time devoted to helping voters and viewers understand that system and the intricacies of its brokenness. Better that candidates and their staffers should be delivered a set of public questions and given time to write thorough, considered, tangible responses to them. Then we voters can mull the jargon-y documents over at our leisure, perhaps in the morning, perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand. This would be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff used to construct Donald Trump’s hair.

In what I did watch of the debate, there seemed to be a running theme of defining oneself as something (anything) other than a politician. Which leaves me with the question: what is a politician? Can any of the people who stood in front of that dumb airplane Wednesday night coherently claim not to be politicians?

I say no. And I think Donald Trump, of all people, would agree with me. He admitted, at one point during the debate, to being “a politician [of] about three months.” This implies that the Donald defines a politician as anyone who runs for or wins a political office, including himself. I like this definition. It is pleasingly simple. All of the Republican candidates are politicians. So are the Democrats.

And yet the candidates at the debate started fighting against being called politicians as soon as they were given the opportunity to open their mouths. Rand Paul and Ben Carson both introduced themselves as doctors, though Rand Paul is a senator and Carson, based on the titles of his more recent books, has been angling toward a political career for at least a couple of years. Mike Huckabee spoke derisively of the “Wall Street-Washington axis of power,” though he’s a former governor and (perhaps more importantly) a Fox News contributor. New Jersey governor Chris Christie balked at the idea that anyone would ever call him a political insider.

At one point Ben Carson was called out by moderator Jake Tapper for comments he made outlining the difference between politicians and whatever he considers himself to be (just your friendly neighborhood world-famous neurosurgeon who’s running for president?). Carson’s old quote was that politicians have their “finger in the air” to see what action is “politically expedient” in any given situation. (Presumably Carson’s fingers, on the other hand, are too busy maneuvering in the fragile brain cavities of his patients for such skullduggery).

Anyway, when Carson was asked to describe what made him different, he said, “I don’t really want to get into describing who’s a politician and who’s not a politician.” I thought it was kind of a beautiful way to respond: instead of ducking the question and leaping headlong into a quasi-related talking point, he just politely refused to answer. Maybe he really is different.

But of course here’s the problem: the strongest current in the narrative of the 2016 election cycle so far is that of voters rebelling against conventional candidate choices in favor of folks perceived as political “outsiders” (who I would obviously hesitate to differentiate from politicians). Therefore, the “politically expedient” thing to do right now is to claim you’re not a politician, just like Carson, and Paul, and Christie, and Scott Walker, and any number of others up on that stage.

Ohio governor John Kasich, despite being quite evidently the candidate least comfortable with speaking on stage, had maybe the most insightful comment of the night, so I will give him the final word here: “If I were sitting at home and watching this back-and-forth,” he said, “I’d be inclined to turn it off.”


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