Let’s be frank: debates are no way to discover a president
Written by Michael Lewis on January 19, 2016
Our presidential debates are more talent shows than measurements of candidates’ merits to lead the free world.
Candidates seem to be auditioning for entertainment jobs. You almost expect network interviewers to grab several by the scruff of the neck and pull them off stage and out of the race. Or to ask each one to either tap dance or juggle.
This is serious stuff we’re dealing with. It should be filled with facts and nuances – but that’s all missing. The TV hosts do well at holding an audience but they miss the substance for the glitz. And what we desperately need is substance.
Instead, we’re left to choose the President of the United States of America based on froth and foam.
So, what do we be getting out of these cattle calls? If you’re looking at who came out best up on stage, what should “best” mean?
Do you rely on who you think “won” the debate, treating a mock debate format seriously even though each candidate faced personalized questions that others did not? Or do you realize that the presidency is anything and everything but a debating society, and that debate is the one skill that almost certainly is not required of our Commander in Chief?
Do you base your choice on which candidate is most likeable, the guy you’d like to grab a beer with or have over for dinner? If so, Abraham Lincoln would never have set foot in the White House. The presidential race should definitely not be a Mr. or Ms. Congeniality piece of a beauty contest. Go have a beer with someone else. Pick a leader instead.
The same could be said about who looks or seems “most presidential.” By that standard, neither Mr. Lincoln nor Lyndon B. Johnson would have served. Looks are what the debates are all about – beauty contests. That’s as far from what the presidency is about as Donald Trump is from Bernie Sanders.
Are we looking for the smartest guy in the room? We shouldn’t be. None of the candidates is short of smarts. But if smarts means only academic abilities, we could wind up with a brilliant guy who couldn’t govern his own bank account much less a nation. Street smarts and a lot of other factors should outweigh “brilliance” on a stage.
How about who made the most sense? Making sense is vital – unless “making sense” means a candidate merely parrots back what handlers had him memorize or what she says simply matches our own prejudices. Would this candidate continue to make sense as head of a powerful nation in a highly complex world?
So, should a “winner” be the person with the steadiest hand and judgment? That’s vital when the Big Red Button of nuclear war is near a president’s hand. Would this one fly off the handle, hit the button and too late think better of it? Several candidates have been known to see red.
How about choosing the candidate who seemed best grounded in reality and careful with facts? Well, if hyperbole isn’t your thing, few candidates on either side of the party divide are going to win your approval. Over the years, not all US presidents have been Boy Scouts. Ask Bill Clinton.
So is your winner choice merely deciding which candidate is most likely to be the party’s final choice? If so, you’re the person at the restaurant table who always orders last and then picks what the majority of others have ordered. You go with the winner that everyone else has predetermined for you – even if you don’t like the meal.
Or is your choice the candidate who’d have the best chance in the general election – which, as far separated as the parties are today, isn’t necessarily the candidate who primary voters may put on the ballot? High-ranking candidates in both parties would have trouble attracting independent voters in November – and it’s the independents who will swing the election.
No, the best pick of a “winner” is not so simple. It’s none of the above yardsticks standing alone and all of the above in a stew, a highly complex calculus of who would serve my country best in times like these.
That might not be the smartest person in the room or the one you’d want to have a beer with or even the one most scrupulous about the facts. It’s the one person who in your judgment would do best for the Good Old USA for the next four years.
Talent shows aside, isn’t that the way we should be making our choice every time?