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

It should be obvious that the best place to present policy positions and explain them is the candidate’s website. Formats should be matching for each candidate.

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

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?

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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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