I can’t seem to turn on my television or load a YouTube video these days without being saturated with attack advertising claiming that Barack Obama hates my future children or that Mitt Romney wants to give my money away to rich people. Considering that both campaigns still have at least $100 million each to spend, these certainly won’t be the last ads I see this year. But if you’re like me, you yearn for a better forum within which the two sides of the political spectrum can compare and contrast their views. A competitive kegball game perhaps? A survivor-style game show? What’s the third one there? Let’s see…
Anyways, Rick Perry digs aside, the presidential debates will return to television sets across the nation this month. The first one will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 3 in Denver and two more will follow on the 16th and 22nd. The debate this week will address domestic policy, the second will cover both foreign and domestic topics and the last will focus exclusively on foreign policy.
I’m excited for these presidential debates, but not for the reasons you might think. For starters, I can watch them without worry. Contrary to popular historical anecdotes about the Nixon vs. Kennedy or Carter vs. Ford contests, most political science research tells us that debates have a very negligible effect on poll responses and election outcome. Seeing a candidate eloquently deliver a stump speech while their opponent is in the room just doesn’t sway minds like we seem to think it does.
However, debates do clarify our understanding of the candidates or their positions. These two campaigns seem determined to run ads that are little more than carefully calibrated lies. In contrast, a debate forces candidates to be very clear on which policy paths they would pursue and why these policies are comparatively superior to their opponent’s.
I’m really hoping the transparency of debate shines through in the foreign policy discussion. The Republican Party, torn asunder between its two wings, has put Mitt Romney in an uncomfortable position. He’ll have to appease the hardliners who shriek of American exceptionalism and court the Ron Paul-ian isolationists who scream back at them. Somehow, he’ll need to formulate a manifesto that is both qualitatively different from and superior to Barack Obama’s and do it all without sounding like George Bush 2.0. That’s no small task. He also won’t have a line-up of clown candidates behind him to make him look brilliant by suggesting moon colonies or mocking the idea that they might need to know the names of other foreign leaders.
If nothing else, debates are a source of often unintentional hilarity. Seriously, Herman Cain was my own personal Winnebago Man for a good two-month stretch. He was the gift that kept on giving. And while it’s no longer primary season, meaning we won’t see any more wretchedly partisan appeals, the potential for gaffes abounds. And hey, new material for SNL skits can hardly be a bad thing.
Even if their claims are vacuous and follow-through is difficult, these debates matter for us as students. A key part of a solid democratic society is an engaged citizenry that understands the importance of student loans and infrastructure development but can also see the value of a balanced budget and a strong military. The subject matter of the contest might matter much more than the debate itself, and it’s essential that we know the issues.
So, welcome the presidential debates with open arms ladies and gentleman, a no stress way to cast blame on whoever you don’t like. They’re here all month and they can only amuse. Tune in.
Nathaniel Olson (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.