At the Glen Haven Fire Department catfish dinner (which was superb, by the way) Sunday, I was asked whether I’d watched the debate between Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett Friday.
I did not. I almost never watch debates between political candidates. (Barrett wanted four debates. Four.) For one thing, I almost always have something better to do. (In this case, the Belmont High School graduation.) As strange as this may seem coming from a political geek, by this time in a campaign I’m usually sick of anything to do with the candidates because every breath they take has been exposed and overanalyzed by a news media that is too lazy to figure out what’s really important in a campaign.
Debating has almost nothing to do with the ability of a candidate of the executive branch of any level of government to perform that job, and it never has. Ever since perhaps the Lincoln–Douglas debates, probably since the Kennedy–Nixon debates of 1960, and certainly since the Carter–Ford debates of 1976, the political professionals and news media have fallen all over themselves congratulating each other for forcing presidential candidates into an artifice that has nothing to do with the jobs for which they want our vote.
That doesn’t mean debates are without occasional entertainment value. Kennedy vs. Nixon took place five years before I was born, so I didn’t have a chance to watch the suntanned John F. Kennedy (caused by his Addison’s disease) vs. Richard Nixon’s flop sweat and 5 o’clock shadow.
I don’t recall Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Eastern Europe’s non-domination by the Soviet Union during the 1976 debates, but I doubt it mattered because immediately after Watergate, no Republican was likely to win.
Ronald Reagan figured out how to debate:
Al Gore was, well …
Presidents, governors and mayors lead and manage. They work with legislators — members of Congress, state legislators and city council members, respectively — to accomplish what they want to accomplish and what voters want them to accomplish. Where does that fit into a debate? “Mr. Mayor, do you believe it’s appropriate to call your challenger Mr. Poo Poo Head?” You would be better off finding a pair of college or high school forensics team members to argue for candidates A and B, except that the debaters would probably throw up their hands in disgust over the less-than-truthful material the campaigns would prepare for them.
Besides that, I don’t need to know who won. Just ask the campaigns — first, Barrett’s:
Tom Barrett won the first general election debate against Scott Walker in overwhelming fashion by focusing the discussion on critical issues of jobs, honesty, trust and the people of Wisconsin.
Governor Scott Walker delivered an exceptional debate performance this evening, handily defeating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the first of two televised debates ahead of the June 5 recall election.
If I were Barrett for Wisconsin Press Secretary Melanie Conklin or Walker “campaign spokeswoman” Ciara Matthews, I would be embarrassed to have my name on those “news releases.” And any reporter who used those news releases (using the term “news” extremely loosely) for any use besides mine — ridicule — should be fired.
It is appropriate for campaigns to spell out the differences between the candidates after debates. But: Between 8:07:27 and 9:04:29 p.m., the Walker campaign sent out 17 — 17! — emails to state media on points made during the debate. The Republican Party of Wisconsin sent an additional email during that span. Barrett’s campaign sent out one email and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin sent one email. (Perhaps they were being green and saving on electricity?)
The assumption seems to be that debates will help the voting public make up its mind. I find that highly unlikely for two reasons. First, the number of truly undecided voters is extremely small, particularly during Recallarama. (I’m willing to bet that no one reading this blog is undecided about whom to vote for as of this moment.) The undecideds are likely to be undecided because politics doesn’t interest them that much; watching a candidate debate is perhaps higher on their list of priorities than cleaning out dryer lint. They are undecided because their lives do not revolve around politics, and thus they may see little difference between the candidates.
The next and last Walker–Barrett debate is Thursday. No, I’m not.