How to Select a President: Reflections on the First 2016 Presidential Debate

I have been thinking about the recently concluded GOP debate.

Consider, for a moment, what the job of the President entails. He or she gets access to the very best brains in the world. He or she gets to hear a multitude of viewpoints. Then, almost always, he or she gets months to decide what to do. Even in a crisis he or she get hours to think about it. Then he or she decides what to do.

Who do we want as President? The most sensible answer is that we should want the person who will make the wisest decision under these circumstances. One who has the intellect and sophistication to sift through sometimes conflicting "facts" and make an optimal choice.

So what does a debate like the one recently held actually measure? andidates get thrown questions, get to think for perhaps two seconds (because after two seconds you risk looking and indecisive) then have to respond. But since the questions are almost always predictable, they don't really have to formulate a response; all they have to do is remember which of a multitude of pre-rehearsed stock answers they will give. And each of these was rehearsed to sound decisive in exactly 60 seconds because that is what they knew they would be allotted in this particular debate.

And if a candidate responds with a "zinger" he gets extra points because this will get re-run in newsreels for the next few days. But all of the Presidential debate "zingers" are pre-rehearsed: "Where's the beef?" "I knew Jack Kennedy. . . Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" None of these were spontaneous. And, likely, all were staff suggestions.

But, let's not lose sight of one important fact: these rhetorical skills bear no relation whatsoever to what a President will actually have to do in office.

So, what did we learn in the just-completed debate?

  1. All of these candidates are pretty good on their feet. Or, at least, they were sufficiently prepped to answer predictable questions with prepped stock answers.
  2. The Fox reporters did a decent job of asking each candidate the one question foremost in voters' minds about each specific candidacy. (In other words, the question most discussed in the media). For example, Trump was asked if he would rule out an Independent candidacy. Bush was asked about the "Bush dynasty" aspect of his candidacy. Paul, the sole non-neocon, was asked about the use of military force. Had they NOT asked these questions, people would have wondered "why?" So they really did have to be asked, even if it made the questions predictable. But this predictability meant that the candidates could respond by mentally retrieving staff-scripted responses.
  3. These moderators sometimes seemed like the guy in the corner of the bar trying to provoke a bar fight. They repeatedly challenged candidates to talk directly to one another after citing the most inflammatory statements a particular candidate had made about another. This, also, made for a great show, if not enlightened policy discourse.
  4. While the short answers were limiting, had they allowed longer ones we might have gotten only one or two responses per candidate. With 10 candidates, it is hard to envision a better format, despite the limitations of 60 second responses. So, they really didn't have much choice at this stage.
So, for the first debate, it was a pretty good show. It sure was entertaining, even if we didn't learn much of anything about who would make a good President. But I still liked it for one very important reason, a reason that actually runs counter to the desire to learn more about how these men think and process information. There is no way to structure a real "debate" with ten candidates. But this panel was the most entertaining and fast-moving Presidential spectacle I have ever witnessed. It was absolutely riveting. I hope it draws more people into paying attention to the process; that would be a worthwhile byproduct of this spectacle.

I do hope, that once the field has been winnowed, they will have a real debate with a format that permits longer, more thoughtful, responses based on less predictable questions. Then the public will have an opportunity to learn something important about the candidates, and not just be entertained. But for that to happen, you need first to develop an audience. This show sure helped that process. I hope the public appetite was whet for more and that the public sticks around when the serious stuff begins.