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A Strange Way to Pick Presidential Candidates

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The Republican presidential contenders have already faced off in a number of debates, with more on the schedule in the next few months. But is the plethora of debates changing how voters view candidates for the White House?

Presidents are supposed to give thoughtful consideration to complicated problems that involve difficult trade-offs (or at least I think that is what many Americans hope that they do). Once in office, they rarely need to shoot back a quip or react to an opponent’s attack. The presidency isn’t a game show, no matter how much some in the media treat it that way.

Yes, debates can convey a presidential candidate’s values and issue positions. I would never suggest that they are completely without value. But there are so many of them that they have created a new context in which candidates for the nation’s highest office are evaluated.

The debates have become a form of reality TV, with moderators and political reporters looking for intriguing storylines to attract more viewers and to force more confrontation among the candidates.

Media organizations feel compelled to host debates, even multiple debates, to build their reputations and to boost their ratings, not to serve the public or even the campaigns.

Each debate is hyped repeatedly by its host network or media outlet, magnifying the event’s importance and placing candidates at the mercy — not of voters or even viewers — but of strategists who create expectations. And if the candidates don’t follow the expected storyline, they get pummeled.

For example, one national political writer criticized former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty after the first debate because she said he “failed to dominate his lesser-known and more eccentric Republican rivals.”

I wonder if anyone told the former governor that “domination” was the standard he needed to reach.

And when Pawlenty did not attack former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sufficiently (in the eyes of many reporters and pundits) during one debate, he was criticized heavily. That put him on the defensive after the debate and put more pressure on him to be more aggressive in the next debate.

Not surprisingly, when the candidates do become more aggressive and confrontational, newspaper headlines crow about the fisticuffs and TV journalists focus on the battle that they, themselves,
encouraged.

Of course, when the debaters avoid attacking each other, too many of us complain that the event was dull and uninteresting. And if a candidate “gets lost” while launching verbal grenades at another, those overshadowed are belittled and told that they need to be louder and more obnoxious in the next debate.

The debate dynamic, not any substantive comments, becomes part of the winners-and-losers assessments.

There has always been a disconnect between the ways we pick our presidents and the qualities that a successful president has.

There is no easy process to understand what kind of a leader a man or woman will be nor how they will make decisions on issues that involve trade-offs and compromises.

The question is whether the steady stream of debates that we have already seen really helps us understand and compare the candidates — or whether a series of one-on-one, in-depth interviews with a thoughtful questioner, such as Charlie Rose or Jim Lehrer, might teach us more about the candidates than a dozen cattle calls.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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