November 1, 2011
To My Fellow Citizens:
The 2012 presidential election is still more than a year away, and the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination have already held – well, no one’s quite sure anymore how many debates they’ve held. Governor Rick Perry of Texas was, for a few weeks after he declared his candidacy, ahead in many national opinion surveys and described as the front-runner in news stories. His performances in the debates since he got into the race, however, have been widely regarded as unimpressive and harmful to his prospects for the nomination.
Perry himself conceded after one performance, “Debates are not my strong suit.” His forensic troubles remind us that running for president is really, really difficult. Perry has been elected governor of the country’s second-most populous state three times, something that a man who wasn’t very good at politics could never have done. But presidential campaigning has caused other accomplished politicians – Bob Dole and Bob Kerrey, for example – to appear out of their depth.
What’s so strange about the growing importance of debates in presidential campaigns is that debating – even defined loosely as appearing poised, serious, imperturbable, and well-informed in what amounts to a competitive group press-conference – doesn’t correspond to anything a president ever does once elected. An American president does not, like a British prime minister, have to defend his policies to critics in legislative chambers. Presidents talk a lot in public, of course, but always in highly controlled settings that allow them to confine their remarks to the subjects they want to talk about, and address them in ways of their own choosing. Saying we elected Smith president because he’s such a good debater, then, is a little like saying that we chose Jones to be our quarterback because he’s such a good ice skater.
Presidential debates are a political institution with a history only 50 years long. In 1960 Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy held four televised debates, the first of which was widely considered decisive. Kennedy won and Nixon lost for reasons having more to do with stagecraft than statecraft. Kennedy appeared “confident, disciplined, and calm,” according to the political historian Michael Barone, while Nixon “was nervous and ill at ease, slouching and sweating.” Kennedy’s dark gray suit contrasted nicely on the nation’s black-and-white televisions with the light-colored screens used as a backdrop in the Chicago television studio. Nixon’s lighter suit blended into that background, drawing more attention to his five-o’clock shadow, since he had chosen to apply heavy makeup rather than shave before the start of the debate. All in all, it sounds like a better procedure for selecting a talk-show host than the nation’s chief executive.
There were no debates between the major party nominees again until 1976, but we’ve had at least one such encounter in each of the eight presidential elections since then. At this point presidential debates have been grafted onto the American political process; it’s very hard to imagine a presidential election ever again taking place without them. And because debates are important in the general election campaign, they are necessarily important in the nomination process. If Republicans come to the conclusion that debates really aren’t Rick Perry’s strong suit, they will have to think hard about nominating him, knowing that Barack Obama held his own against Hillary Clinton and John McCain in these forums in 2008, and the debates are likely to be important in what could be a close contest in 2012.
Debates have become so important to modern presidential politics not because they help us understand what a candidate thinks or will do, but because we hope they help us understand who he is. We wait for the unscripted moments where the politician, unable to rely on speechwriters or consultants, reveals his principles and character. The problem with this hope is, as the old saying goes, that sincerity is so important because once you learn how to fake it, you can get away with anything. If debates are supposed to let us see the person behind the politician’s mask, they will give an advantage to politicians who are good at fashioning a special mask just for the debates, one that allows them to reveal their constructed “authentic” self.
Regardless of whether or not Governor Perry should be nominated or elected, then, there is something about his situation that makes one fear for our experiment in self-government. Imagine one of those diagrams with overlapping circles, one circle containing the list of all the Americans who would be good presidential candidates, and the other the list of everyone who would be a good president. It’s dangerous for the health of the republic if those two circles overlap less and less every four years. The culmination of that trend would be for the “skill set” that makes someone a good presidential candidate to have nothing to do with the qualities that make someone a good president. It’s fair to say that a part of the disappointment with President Obama – even and perhaps especially among people who were enthused about his candidacy in 2008 – is the disquieting thought that running for president turned out to be the one part of being president that this fellow is really good at. If we’ve reached the point where the one thing has nothing to do with the other, then America has a bigger problem than a flawed president. We have a flawed system for picking presidents, one that will only occasionally and by accident leave us with a good one.