Posted: October 22, 2011
Saturday Night Live, that reliable and now venerable source of political satire, took aim recently at the race for the Republican presidential nomination. It announced its spoof as "Either the 7th or 8th GOP Debate," nicely capturing the ennui already setting in. With nine candidates on stage, a half dozen more debates to come, and the primaries still three or four months away, why do we tune in to the spectacle, which—with Rick Perry played not by Alec Baldwin but by the real governor of Texas—is bound to be both a comedic and dramatic disappointment?
American politics has had its share of great debates, but never at the presidential level. Our proudest forensic exchanges—Webster and Hayne, Lincoln and Douglas, the debate on the annexation of the Philippines, to name a few—have taken place in constitutional conventions, Senate races, on the House or Senate floor, on Bill Buckley's Firing Line, almost anywhere but in a platform shared by two or more candidates for the presidency.
For an office designed at least partly with George Washington in mind, debating skills were never a high priority. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; has the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and cabinet officers (with the Senate's advice and consent); and wields the veto pen and issues pardons and reprieves at his discretion. But none of these or his few other constitutionally prescribed powers and duties requires him to debate anyone. The tradition of presidential debating is not only relatively new (Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 was the first), it tests an art or aptitude that is irrelevant to the job.
In a parliamentary system, the logic is quite different. The prime minister, like every one of his cabinet members, is first of all a member of parliament, and secondly a member of his party's majority in parliament. In Great Britain and similar countries, the executive officeholders arise out of the legislature and eventually return to it, rather than being decisively separated from it as in our arrangement. One of the glories of the British system is "question time," when the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues must answer their fellow legislators' inquiries about government policy. Before Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair took a turn at answering questions, however, each had spent years asking them and debating other MPs. Debate skills are honed in such service, and are a necessary, normal, and sometimes noble part of parliamentary democracy.
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But there is no question time for American presidents, who answer to the people via elections but to the Congress hardly at all. (The chief exception, impeachment, is a quasi-judicial proceeding, not a legislative debate.) Woodrow Wilson disparaged this separation of the president from the Congress, regarding it as a lost opportunity for presidential leadership and for a more enlightened citizenry. He envied the soaring oratorical contests of Gladstone and Disraeli in the House of Commons, which he thought the British people followed more keenly than they did the cricket scores. As a young man, Wilson even proposed a series of constitutional amendments to turn our system into a parliamentary one, but soon abandoned the wholly impracticable scheme and settled on the notion of remaking the president into a serial speech-giver who would lead public opinion, and through public opinion would lead Congress.
If he could come back and listen to a month's worth of Barack Obama's speeches, he might repent of this decision. Obama's university education, very defective by his own admission, apparently did not include the law of diminishing returns: the more he speaks, the less people listen. That's not Wilson's fault, but our fascination with presidential debating is, at least in part.
With one minute for answers, 30 seconds for rebuttals, a line of candidate—Rockettes each waiting to show some leg, preening questioners trying to outshine the candidates, additional queries pouring in from Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other parts of la-la land, and video clips of past "performances" at the ready—if anything resembling a debate takes place in this GOP circle of hell it's a miracle. When Lincoln and Douglas went at it in the 1858 Senate race, they spoke for three hours-an hour-and-a-half each, on the issues as they defined them, without benefit of media clergy. The reporters stood or sat quietly in the audience and took notes. The thousands who had assembled to witness the debate (there were seven of them, up and down Illinois) had to strain to hear, for there were no microphones and loudspeakers, but the speeches were worth hearing.
So why do we tune in? Perhaps because we learn, despite the game-show distractions, a little something about the candidates and issues. Or more likely, so we'll get the jokes on Saturday Night Live.