Guest commentary: American political debates: arguably worth the time
September 22, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I mustered my courage and went to Grand Junction to watch the political debates sponsored by Club 20. I went with some sense of dread, as most debates these days consist of candidates being asked broad questions and given a minute to answer.
"Senator, given the Russian advances in eastern Ukraine and Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas, do you think today's military budget is adequate, and if not, what would you do to reassure our NATO allies?"
The answers usually consist of some broad generalities, a couple of catch words and then a precooked message inserted randomly.
"Thank you for that question, Susan. I've always supported a strong American defense, and I think our budget needs to fully support our men and women in uniform. As a senator, I will work with our allies to make sure the Russian aggression is held in check. But, look, what this debate is about is our future and our children's future. We need new jobs in Mesa County, and I will work hard to bring those jobs here if elected senator."
It would be difficult to fully answer most of the panel questions in a full-length article in Foreign Affairs or The Economist. I've watched dozens of these debates on television and can honestly say I've never walked away having learned that cadmium telluride on large substrates significantly reduces the cost of solar panels or that optimal fiscal policy is a liquidity trap. That sort of stuff doesn't roll off the tongue well, and it certainly isn't the red meat we want at a debate.
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In fact, the format of American debates is possibly the worst way to really learn what a candidate thinks or believes. In 10 minutes on the Internet you could learn far more about your candidate's stance by his or her voting record, memberships, endorsements, etc., than you could in an hourlong debate.
But the debates do serve a useful purpose, and by God, they can be entertaining.
Having two men or women up on stage before a hungry and highly judgmental crowd (who else spends a Saturday evening in the Grand Junction Convention Center?) is mixed martial arts for partisans and wonks. And so, the performance has little to do with answering a question directly, getting the facts straight or reciting an impressive list of numbers.
The contest is one of wit, storytelling, poise, aggressiveness and charm. Which, come to think of it, are some of the qualities we want in a good politician.
When I asked a few friends and strangers who won the debates, most of the answers had nothing to do with the substance of what was said but of how it was said — the effect and impressions.
"Cory Gardner made up those stories about his baby's shoes, … and the whole thing was so corny."
"I thought Hickenlooper tripped over himself."
"Mark Udall looks like a senator — he should be the senator. But he needs to attack more."
No one I polled mentioned the Bowles-Simpson tax plan, the sage grouse in northern Colorado or the Western Governors Association — all topics discussed in the debate.
It's a tricky business, and to be good at it requires a deft touch. Attack your opponent too fiercely, and you look like a bore instead of a statesman. Don't attack enough and listen thoughtfully to your opponent's answers, and you look too soft. Trot out a really good story about your youth on the farm and how it informed your values, and you solidify your base and win a few new voters. Reach too hard for the life-lesson metaphor, and people groan and roll their eyes.
I went into the debates prejudiced but ready to listen. I came out of them still backing the same horses but having learned quite a bit.
Of the four candidates I watched, Gov. John Hickenlooper versus Bob Beauprez, and Sen. Mark Udall versus Congressman Cory Gardner, I went in supporting Hickenlooper and Udall, and I came out supporting the same.
Even writing this column, not long since the debate, I can hardly remember the specifics of what the candidates said — only how they came across.
Hickenlooper tried to talk real policy but was too wonky in my opinion and got bested by Beauprez's practical, fifth-generation Coloradan thing. Beauprez comes across as one of those strict headmasters bowing his head before God out at a barn-raising in the middle of the prairie. But he doesn't have to pretend much getting there.
Hickenlooper is obviously intelligent and loves to talk policy, but he lacked the good sound bites and strong narrative. Blue-ribbon panels and kilowatts need to be dressed up in wagon-train or hard-rock-mining parallels.
Udall comes across as a Western statesman (who probably would make a good secretary of state) and did a good job hammering home "the past" (Gardner) versus "the future" (Udall). He goes for the mountaineering metaphors, and they work pretty well become he is an accomplished mountaineer, and the passionate outdoorsperson is really his base. His performance suffered a little with his attentive and sincere effort to listen to Gardner's answers. Polite but fully taken-advantage-of by Gardner.
Gardner was the one candidate who truly needs to work at this sport. His answers were a choppy mix of non sequiturs, truly embarrassing homilies, interruptions of Udall and manipulations of his real voting record. I say that doing my best to suspend any prejudice.
The most affirming thing about the debate, and what softened my skepticism, was the enthusiastic crowd that filled the place and the number of blogging, videoing, posting, typing, tweeting press. Any of them could have been at one of the last barbecues of the year, at a softball game or at home weeding their garden.
Instead, they spent the evening listening attentively, cheering madly for their candidate and suffering through some truly bad metaphors — even some that involved weeding.
Mark Harvey is an Aspen native.