We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and, not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers. The contest is close, and the chance to watch the two candidates spar with one another face-to-face makes for entertaining television.
This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. They get tremendous coverage throughout the media universe, both while they’re taking place and in the days that follow. They let the voters see the candidates under pressure and gauge their performance. As scripted as they can sometimes seem, they still let us watch the candidates think on their feet. They’re serious events, and are certainly more substantive than campaign speeches and television commercials.
It’s true that they don’t usually change the trajectory of a race—although we won’t know until election night whether this year’s debates played a role in the outcome. They can reinforce enthusiasm, but it’s rare that they create it from scratch.
Yet I think our focus on debates—at least in the form they currently take—is misplaced. It’s not so much that they reward one-upmanship, a quick wit, and clever zingers—although they do. Rather, I think they don’t actually help us make a good choice.
Over my years in Congress and afterward, I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings at the White House where foreign and domestic policy were discussed. For the most part, I came away impressed by the process by which presidents make tough decisions. They go around the room, asking each guest, “What do I do now?” They ask participants to define the issue, lay out the options, identify American interests at stake, and make recommendations. It’s usually a sustained, unhurried process, with very little fancy oratory: instead, I’ve heard sharp debate and thorough discussion characterized by forceful, reasoned, fact-based, and responsible arguments. Presidents pay close attention and sometimes take notes. They want to hear different opinions, seek advice, and then go off and make a decision.
You have to remember that the choices a president has to make are complicated and often very difficult—almost by definition, an issue doesn’t get to that level unless it’s a tough one. I’ve sat in on meetings with both Democratic and Republican presidents, and one of the things that often impressed me is that ideology has played a smaller role than you'd imagine. The conversations are quite pragmatic.
What all this means is that the real quality you’re looking for in a president is judgment: the ability to consider issues from all angles, weigh options carefully, and then choose the wisest course—sometimes from among a tangle of unpalatable alternatives.
That is what presidents do. But the qualities necessary to do this do not come through in the debates, which tell us very little about how candidates would do at exercising judgment in the fog of policy-making. A campaign event that calls for impassioned oratory, a quick wit, one-liners, and sharp digs is not especially helpful for helping us choose who is going to make the best decisions.
I think we can do better. Selecting a president is serious business. We want to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff.
How do we do this? We change the nature of the debates. To begin with, I believe there should be a series of them, each focused on a single issue—education, say, or national security. Candidates should face a panel of questioners asking them to address the toughest questions on those matters—people who are sharp and incisive and are prepared to follow up and press candidates when they spout mush. Ideally, the candidates should face this panel one at a time, rotating who goes first, and with other rules to assure fairness.
The point is, we want voters to go to the polls not just with a good idea of where the candidates want to take us and how they’re going to get there. We also want voters to have a clear sense of how sound the candidates’ judgment is, because that’s ultimately what will make or break their presidency.
Lee H. Hamilton is director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University; distinguished scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.