Politics & Policy

Why Debates Matter

Taking the stage in Simi Valley. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty)

Simi Valley, Calif. — The skills that make a good president aren’t necessarily demonstrable on a debate stage. But a candidate must be elected, which means being able to win some debates.

On Wednesday evening, a consensus formed quickly: Florida senator Marco Rubio and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina had emerged victorious.

In the spin-room scrum that followed, some were quick to voice their objections. “A good performance doesn’t mean you’re a solid conservative,” said former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who is supporting the rumpled and prickly Ohio governor, John Kasich.

It’s true. Success on the debate stage doesn’t require passing a test of ideological purity or managerial competence; it demands qualities that are easy to identify and hard to define: charisma, stage presence, self-possession. Underlying these “winning” traits is usually some even-more-elusive mix of appearance, body language, voice control, eye contact, style, humor, temperament, and message.

Why did Rubio and Fiorina best their challengers? On matters of substance, says a top Republican strategist, succeeding on the debate stage — and, for that matter, on the campaign trail — is partly a matter of integrating personal narrative and political message.

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Rubio, the freshman senator, used a question about the appropriateness of speaking Spanish on the campaign trail to talk about his immigrant grandfather’s aspirational beliefs about the country — and his own.

Success on the debate stage . . . demands qualities that are easy to identify and hard to define: charisma, stage presence, self-possession.

“My grandfather instilled in me the belief that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything, and be anything that I was willing to work hard to achieve,” Rubio said. “But he taught me that in Spanish, because it was the language he was most comfortable in. . . . And so, I do give interviews in Spanish, and here’s why: because I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility. And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me. Not from a translator at Univision.”

Jeb Bush had a chance to respond to the same question. He did so without integrating the story of his immigrant wife or relating it to his political vision. “If a high-school kid asks me a question in Spanish, a school — by the way, a voucher program that was created under my watch, the largest voucher program in the country, where kids can go to a Christian school, and they ask me a question in Spanish, I’m going to show respect and answer that question in Spanish,” he said. It was a missed opportunity, as was his response to a question from the debate’s lone conservative moderator, Hugh Hewitt, who asked, simply, given the plethora of ex-officials from both Bush administrations now advising the former Florida governor, “What kind of a commander-in-chief is Jeb Bush going to be?”

It was an opportunity, but an opportunity squandered. “If you’re looking at Republican advisers, you have to go to the last two administrations. That happened to be 41 and 43,” Bush said limply.

#share#Then there was Carly Fiorina, who has made her executive experience and her rise from secretary to CEO a central part of her message that leaders don’t — and government shouldn’t — stifle potential, but unlock it.

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She has made her firing from Hewlett Packard a part of her political platform, a case in point about why she is equipped to upend the status quo in Washington. “We must lead in this nation again, and some tough calls are going to be required,” she said. “But as for the firing, I have been very honest about this from the day it happened. When you challenge the status quo, you make enemies. I made a few. Steve Jobs told me that when he called me the day I was fired to say, ‘Hey, been there, done that, twice.’”

Though Donald Trump was burly and bullying on Wednesday night, the importance of stage presence has worked in his favor.

Bobby Jindal, who appeared in the undercard debate earlier in the evening, is another case in point. As a second-generation success story, the Louisiana governor frequently mentions his parents’ immigrant origins. But he hasn’t made it a habit, or seamlessly integrated his life with his vision. Responding to a question from moderator Jake Tapper about how the country should address the thousands of Syrians now clamoring to take refuge in the United States, Jindal waited until the final ten seconds of his answer to invoke the experience of his own family. Scott Walker, too, could’ve defined himself, on the basis of his record in Wisconsin, as the candidate who takes on special interests, but has been diverted on the campaign trail. His showing in the debate was adequate, but did nothing to redefine him.

And though Donald Trump was burly and bullying on Wednesday night, the importance of stage presence has worked in his favor. His persona as a successful, bomb-throwing businessman is essentially his message for the country. Trump is what he says America should be, and behaves as he thinks the country should in the international arena. “Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage, he’s number 11,” the real-estate magnate sniffed in his opening foray. In the Trump administration, he’s promised, China will be wined and dined at McDonald’s.

#related#To be fair, the candidates can’t control every one of the variables that determines debate success. Nobody will ever confuse Washington for Hollywood, but still, looks matter. Who is the eye drawn to? Fiorina surely won the night in her royal blue dress. And when the candidates lined up on stage for a group photo, shorter and slighter men like Jindal and Rand Paul were at a natural disadvantage next to those, like Trump, who have the bearings of a football coach. But height is not dispositive. Jeb Bush, who’s well over six feet tall but has bad posture and poor eye contact, manages to look recessive at times next to his challengers.

Message matters, but so do the intangibles. They’re the reason Michael Dukakis’s ride on a tank and John Kerry’s wet-suited windsurfing were so politically damaging, and why Hillary Clinton’s orange-jumpsuited dissembling might prove the same before 2016 is through.

They’re also why debates matter.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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