Jim Geraghty is right to question the sincerity of the chorus of left-leaning voices suddenly advocating or rationalizing the cancellation of this fall’s presidential debates. Some of the arguments he cites depend, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the contention that the format of a televised presidential debate will somehow significantly advantage Donald Trump over Joe Biden. Others exude a general cynicism about the enterprise — a cynicism whose timing seems rather convenient.
My own cynicism, however, predates this moment, and will obtain regardless of whether these debates are held and which candidate benefits the most from them. There is something somewhat ridiculous to me to the assumption on which presidential debates in their modern incarnation, both in primaries and in the general election, depend: namely, that how a given individual performs on television for an extended period of time is in some way a meaningful and revelatory test of presidential fitness. In his anti-television tirade Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, media critic Neil Postman gets at the core of the absurdity:
The point is that television does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom, if we mean by “better” such things as more capable in negotiation, more imaginative in executive skill, more knowledgeable about international affairs, more understanding of economic systems, and so on. The reason has, almost entirely, to do with “image.” But not because politicians are preoccupied with presenting themselves in the best possible light. After all, who isn’t? It is a rare and deeply disturbed person who does not wish to project a favorable image. But television gives image a bad name. For on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of himself, as offer himself as an image of the audience.
The modern presidential debate is mostly a test of how well a candidate can perform in the environment it presents. This seems like a tautology, but if it is, it is an important one. A nation with short attention spans, served by a media enamored of soundbites and isolated moments of high drama, cannot help but to create a stage in which the performers are just that — performers. To the extent that there is utility in certain aspects of what the presidential debate has become —giving opposing candidates an opportunity to interact with one another directly and almost unfiltered, allowing an assessment of records and performance, and, perhaps uniquely in this election, testing a possible president’s stamina — it is mostly incidental. Perhaps even accidental.
The principal attribute of today’s presidential debates is high theatricality. “Victory” comes from a superficial and subjective analysis of collected moments in them, or by an even-more subjective attempt by the candidates and by their surrogates to “spin” the proceedings in their favor after the fact. I suppose one could argue that “presentability” is an essential characteristic in a modern executive. But this format tends to weigh that characteristic so heavily as to encourage it, to the exclusion of others, promoting what ought to be only a secondary skill into one of the most important. (How would, say, the famously reserved Calvin Coolidge have done in such a milieu?) Yet this is the debauched nature of the political/media environment we inhabit.
We almost certainly need something like a presidential debate. Something like that kind of forum, after all, has a long history, and it has proved useful in the past. In today’s political and media environment (which I suppose is the real target of my ire, as it was Postman’s), however, I question its usefulness. So much so that I am almost inclined to concur with the likely opportunistic gripes of those on the left about the debates that are scheduled for this fall.