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Debates, ads and media reports are illogical and unhelpful ways to assess candidates

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Qualities that help win a debate, and a boxing match, are not the ones that make good presidents or senators.

Recently I attended (for the first time in my life) the local debates between two candidates for the Minnesota Senate and came to the conclusion that I was right in not doing it before. A half-hour debate included discussing several issues with each candidate expressing his point of view and an opportunity for the opponent to respond. With opening and closing statements, it allowed candidates less than three minutes to explain their respective positions on each issue, which would be less than 400 words in written text. Unfortunately, nothing can be really explained in that many (or actually, that few) words except the position itself.

But we don’t need to hear candidates’ positions, which are usually well known; we need to hear explanations of their positions — and that is what is surely lost in the debates, state and national (local debates may be different because they are nonpartisan and may discuss specific local concerns rather than policies).

Explain positions on matching-format websites

It should be obvious that the best place to present policy positions and explain them is the candidate’s website. Ideally, the government should give each candidate some money to create a website that will address all issues the candidate wants to address (candidates may skip some issues if they want to). The website format should be the same: issue, position, explanation, and response to positions of other candidates on this issue. Something like this: With regard to such and such issue, I want to do such and such for the following reasons and whatever other candidates propose will not work for the following reasons. All facts should be supported by reliable original sources, and candidates will be permitted to point out discrepancies and lack of logic in opponents’ positions. Additionally, candidates’ résumés should be posted in the format of “position – accomplishments” and they should also be obligated to answer all relevant questions people may submit.

So what should be discussed during the live debates if all issues are addressed on the web?

The only thing that is left is their personal conduct and moral issues. Unfortunately, this kind of debate may (and often does) deteriorate quickly into a shouting (even if at a lower voice) match and mutual accusations. Those questions really do not have good answers anyway (how do you explain lying or bad behavior?), so the result is more lying and spinning. Of course, moral issues are relative, too, especially in times of elections. What is flip-flopping or wastefulness for opponents is flexibility and learning or desire to help others for supporters.

Debates akin to sports spectacles

Unfortunately, debates have become akin to boxing matches or other sporting events: They are promoted on TV in a similar manner, described in similar terms, and even conducted similarly (there were comments that in the presidential debates Hillary Clinton provoked Donald Trump by playing on his ego and forcing him to lose his temper, thus exposing his weaknesses). But qualities that help win a debate, and a boxing match, are not the ones that make good presidents or senators, so debates do not add much more than 30-second commercials.

Of course, relying on the website approach would result in significantly fewer people being familiar with the candidates and their positions (how many people would be willing to go to the website and read an essay about every issue?), but maybe those who don’t want to know about those issues in depth and vote on an emotional basis should not be voting. Or as an alternative, they may rely on the media’s interpretations — of which there will be plenty, though not always reliable and accurate.

Speaking of media, it is common knowledge that the media’s reporting and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. Sure, most likely Trump behaved inappropriately with some women, but we are not electing a Girl Scout camp counselor or a beauty pageant organizer (wait, Trump had been a beauty pageant organizer and many women were eager to be a part of that). On the other hand, it would be hard to insist that Bill Clinton was highly respectful of women but that didn’t prevent him from being a not too bad of a president, so it should be difficult to argue that a few of Trump’s words make him unfit to be a president. 

Help people decide with facts

It may surprise some people, but I am not defending Trump here; rather, I am trying to show how illogical and unhelpful the current way of choosing whom to vote for is and how the media make it even even more so.

Personally, this year’s election is difficult for me: I don’t want to vote for either presidential candidate and most likely will skip that portion of the ballot. But I think we should learn some lessons from this and stop making a spectacle out of the presidential race (and others as well) and help people decide based on facts presented on the candidates’ websites, rather than the fiction of commercials and debates.

Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.  


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/01/2016 - 10:21 am.

    Some Very Good Thought Here

    I appreciate the time and care of thought and preparation Ilya Gutman’s piece shows us.

    I have believed for years that these “debates” are nothing but partially structured opportunities for each candidate to appear “presidential” in a common arena, little more than that as these devolve to stump rhetoric and obtuse angles of attack. The so-called “moderator” generally performs as referee, and I do mean “performs,” for his specific audience.

    While not advocating for formal collegiate debating standards, I do believe these rather rambling forays would help everyone–audience, candidate, moderator–if a more formal structure were imposed, similar to proper debate principles. As each debate supposedly has one topic [question], each candidate should put forth one constructive speech of canned position statements, followed by the other candidate doing same. We would all listen, including moderator. Rebuttals, directed by moderator, would then follow from each candidate. If we wished a true formal debate, VP candidates would be included as 2nd Affirmative/Negative speakers, as it were. What we have now is more a “cross-question” format by default, causing everyone to drift far afield of the the question/topic, leaving viewing voters distrated at minimum.

    Certainly the absolute rigidity of formal debate structure need not be arcanely imposed; however, something must be done to improve the orderly disposition of facts and corresponding promises. As these stand, our “debates” have become more akin to European circuses, where everything goes round and round in one circle.

    Removing these “shows” from entertainment TV might also improve their legitimacy. In a medium where TV news has very much become an entertainment segment, the debate moderators seem less than competent. Surely some producers somewhere know how to return these political entertainments to a more orderly and meaningful level of differentiation without boring the audience. Most of us wish to know how these candidates will stand up to more discrete global scrutiny if placed in office. That includes many foreign government officials in the TV audience.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/01/2016 - 09:42 am.

    In these days of bold and repeated lies why will these websites be a fount of truth ?

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/01/2016 - 09:54 am.

    I See a Few Problems Here

    1. Who gets a website? Republicans and Democrats, to be sure. Greens? Libertarians? The Wood Party?

    2. Who is the arbiter of whether facts are “supported by reliable original sources?” What is the test for reliability?

    3. All “relevant” questions must be answered. Again, who decides “relevance?”

    An officially sanctioned campaign website would be antithetical to free speech and free elections. Our present way of picking politicians is far from perfect, but I can’t think of a cure that wouldn’t make things worse.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 11/01/2016 - 04:49 pm.

    If I were a candidate subjected to a televised debate and

    someone asked me a dumb question, I’d say, “I’m not here to talk about that. Why isn’t anyone asking about the things that (elected officials) actually deal with on a day-to-day basis and have some control over? You’re not electing a religious leader or a gossip columnist or a best friend. This is a serious matter. Let’s get serious.”

    The late Helmuth Schmidt spent a week in residence at the college where I was teaching in 1988, and naturally, people asked him what he thought of the American election. As expected, he was highly critical of the “debates,” stating that they seemed staged and trivial.

    He suggested that the candidates appear in a series of forums in front of different types of people: small business owners one week, farmers another week, students another week, people in the arts another week, health care workers another week, and so on, to answer unscripted questions. That would prove which candidates knew their stuff and were competent to run the country.

    One of my Republican friends, who can’t stand Trump and will not be voting for him, thought that the people he could have accepted cancelled one another out during the primaries, because they were too similar, leaving only the one candidate who was different from all the rest. He suggested that instead, voters should mark each contender as “acceptable” or “unacceptable” and then let the convention choose among the top two or three whom the most voters across the country consider acceptable.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/01/2016 - 06:18 pm.


    Thoughtful and well presented article by Mr. Gutman. I agree the debates are a very poor way of learning about a candidate’s position on issues. A candidate’s explanation for his or her program on issues is going to be an internet site or policy paper.

    During the 1950’s and 1960’s and into the 1970’s, politics were far more driven by party politics than today. It wasn’t necessary for people to see or hear their candidate because the candidates were chosen by party leaders on the basis of representing the parties and people knew what the parties stood for. If they wanted to see their candidate, they went to a rally or whistle stop. There’s a reason there were no televised or even radio debates before Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.

    As party affiliation has fallen, and candidates have become selected in these endless primaries and caucuses,the media has filed the vacuum with more coverage of rallies. The “debates” are really so staged so that the media can fulfill its role of arbiter and not be accused to favoring one party over the other. As I think I read in an earlier MinnPost article, the debates used to be run by the League of Women Voters and in such a way that third party candidates could also get air time. There’s no logical reason why the debates should be restricted to the candidates of the two major parties.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/01/2016 - 07:37 pm.

    Thank you everyone for comments.

    Making debates more formal will not totally remove the “acting” part which, as I said, is irrelevant to position performance. And what is better than a website to present “one constructive speech of canned position statements?”

    The candidates’ websites will still be subjective but with the requirement to reference the sources and provide raw data they will be better than debate presentation. Plus everyone will be able to question the point and the answers will reveal the depth of the position.

    Everyone who wants to run should get a website with very few restrictions – it will widen the field and let people think of more options. Considering that the site format will be the same for everyone, it will be pretty cheap. Money to support the website may be based on the number of visitors and questions. Of course, there will be some things justifying disqualification such as calls for violence, commercial advertisements, etc. Reliability will be determined by the voters and by questions submitted to the candidate. If a candidate says that A is a fact and it is not, someone will provide the evidence that it is not. Wikipedia is relatively accurate… As for relevant questions, it may be possible to request a certain support for a question (so many likes?) in order to make it relevant and request candidate to answer. Of course, trolling may be a problem but I am sure there are ways of dealing with that. For sure, no questions about private life should be allowed (and no, having a private server is not a private life while a bus conversation is). How are those websites contrary to free speech? Government will not control their contents.

    My point is that we have to move away from emotions towards rational and critical thinking. For that, mass media should stay away because viewing and listening is more emotional than reading.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/01/2016 - 09:42 pm.

      Just a bit of a quibble here, ILYA

      I do believe we need to watch and hear final candidates, at least, in real time exercise of their respective thinking and communication abilities—matters that will truly matter in so many ways as they perform their ultimate foreign and domestic duties.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/02/2016 - 02:41 pm.

      Very Interesting Ideas

      I think you raise some good points, and have some very interesting suggestions. I especially like the idea that everyone who wants to run would get a website. I’m usually a reliable “D” vote, but I support giving broader access to the ballot.

      I don’t know if this is something the government would sponsor. It would be a worthy project for a civic-minded group to pursue, but I’m afraid many would balk. We live in such polarized times that even neutrality will be perceived as bias.

      Again, interesting ideas.

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