A Strange Way to Pick Presidential Candidates

by Stuart Rothenberg November 18, 2011 · 9:32 AM EST

Presidential debates, says NBC News Political Director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, are now part of the winnowing process. Instead of going to a small state and wooing caucus-goers, Republican presidential hopefuls are going on national cable to see if they can resonate with the voters.

With 26 GOP debates currently scheduled between May 5, 2011, and March 19, 2012 (17 of them before the Iowa caucuses), the fight for the party’s nomination is now played out in living rooms and dens around the country as much as in diners, candidate coffees and small events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On television, this year’s debates have drawn more than the handful of political junkies and campaign professionals who once tuned in. They have become big events.

Last week’s CNBC debate drew more than 3.3 million viewers, while Saturday’s CBS/National Journal debate pulled in 5.3 million viewers. An October CNN debate drew 5.6 million, more than “The Biggest Loser” on NBC, and a September debate on Fox drew 6.1 million viewers.

If Chuck Todd is correct — and I have no doubt that he is — we now have a nominating process that values certain skills and abilities in candidates that have nothing to do with governing.

You say we never did? Well, maybe. But at least real people got a chance to see their potential president up close, to ask a question and listen to a response. Businessman Herman Cain spent little of his time in Iowa or New Hampshire during his brief ride to the top of the polls.

Debates reward the quick quip, the snappy rejoinder, the cutting comeback and the clever response. Because some of the fallout from a debate is generated by news reports and chatter after the actual event, a sound bite played over and over the day after the debate can be more important for one of the candidates than all of the talk during the event.

Debate skills might be useful if we had a question time in Congress the way the British prime minister has in the House of Commons, but we don’t.

A quick repartee is a nice weapon at a dinner party, but it simply isn’t vital when trying to decide how to respond if Israel launches a pre-emptive strike on Iran, how to close the deficit or what an administration should do in reaction to the next crisis.

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.