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I hate these debates.

It isn’t that they aren’t important. They clearly are, as illustrated by the following:

Rick Perry went to the top of the polls merely by announcing his run. He subsequently hit the skids after abysmal debate performances.

I’m not sure anyone would even know who Herman Cain was, were it not for the debates. And after strong performances he led the pack by early October.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich routinely impressed audiences with his vast knowledge of the issues and of history, and his ability to articulate his points. The debate format is tailor made for him. After a truly pathetic start to his campaign (which I concluded was over before it began), he’s now at the top of the polls.

So it’s true. These events have an important role in the process.

I still hate them. When they’re over I frequently find myself unable to discern anything new that I’ve learned about the candidates or their positions. That causes me to ask another question: If these debates are really swinging support to or from candidates (and they certainly appear to be), on what basis are the American people giving or withdrawing their support? What is their criteria? And I’m very concerned that I probably know the answer.

In the now famous Nixon/Kennedy debates, Nixon was hurt by appearing pale, sweaty, and ill in the first nationally televised debate. Chris Matthews tells the story of the two campaigns having a fight in the basement of the building where the debate was held, with the Nixon campaign insisting that the air conditioning be increased to keep the temperature low and, in theory, keeping Nixon from sweating on camera during the next debate.

Consider this for a moment: The next President would be confronting a missile crisis in Cuba, dealing with slow economic growth domestically, and weighing conflict with Communism in Southeast Asia. Should we really have cared if the man we were considering for the Presidency sweats on camera?

This is not to say, of course, that the voters necessarily got it wrong at the end of the day. It’s how they may have gotten there that I find troubling.

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4 comments
  1. I think that Cain’s rise came due to his 9-9-9 plan & winning the Florida Straw Poll, his support started to fall a little after subsequent debates and then tanked with the accusations made against him.

    1. You’re right, I didn’t mention those things. But I think his early debate performances really helped him, and I doubt he would’ve won the Florida Straw Poll if he’d have done poorly in them.

  2. Hard to say why Newt is ahead in the polls except to say that he is the last non-Mitt standing – for now anyways. Still don’t know why Iowans didn’t return to the winner of their straw poll after Perry fell. Maybe Iowans are fickle?

  3. In a system designed to produce a superpower president from a collection of imperfect candidates and by imperfect voters, the debates provide one important component. Debates allow the voters to form a personal opinion, rather than simply select a viewpoint from among rival talking heads. This is a key addition to a process that still has many other pieces. We still have investigative journalists doing fact checking and commentators doing evaluation of the candidates’ statements. Without the debates, we are left getting our direct looks at the candidates from their own carefully scripted commercials. Ultimately, we collectively take a stab in the dark, and then it is important that the electorate take ownership in the choice it has made. Our connection to a candidate, made during the debate process, helps establish that ownership.

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