Neil Buchanan: It’s Time to End the Debate Circus

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

The pundits and the public have weighed in on the final presidential debate of 2016, and it turns out that my conclusions (which I reached after my usual self-sequestering, so that I did not know about the emerging consensus as I wrote down my thoughts) were widely shared, with some important caveats that I will discuss shortly.

Most important, there has been nearly universal condemnation of Donald Trump's refusal to say that he would accept the results of the vote, even if (when) he loses. Trump's surrogates spent Thursday frantically reassuring the world that their man is not that insane, but they have had only limited success (for obvious reasons). But in any event, it is heartening to see the fierce reaction against Trump's flirtation with insurrection.

Still, the negative commentary to a large degree has missed the importance of Trump's arguments as to why the vote will be rigged against him. Amy Davidson in The New Yorker and William Saletan in Slate were the exceptions in noting all three of Trump's claims: voter brainwashing by the purportedly liberal media, Hillary Clinton's ineligibility to run for president because she is supposedly a criminal and the bogus claims of voter fraud.

By paying attention only to the last of those three delusions, most commentators made it too easy for Trump's apologists to say that he was merely reserving his right to request recounts if the outcome is close, or to raise legitimate claims of voter fraud. Because that is not at all what he said, as I argued, nothing that happens between now and Election Day will resolve his supposed concerns.

But again, it is gratifying to see nearly everyone get the big picture right, and not just on the post-election insurrection issue but more broadly. Clinton won big, again, while Trump melted down and became incoherent. Clinton handled herself with grace and class, while Trump exposed himself once again as a misogynist and bigot.

With all of that in mind, I nevertheless hereby call for the end of national presidential and vice presidential debates forevermore. Yes, you read that correctly. In the aftermath of a debate sweep that might have changed the course of human history, the wisest thing that we could do is to put an end to these dangerous spectacles.

To be clear, I love debating. I spent many years of my early life participating in and coaching debate, especially parliamentary debate at the university level.

My unhappiness with the presidential debates, however, is not a matter of academic purism. As Michael Dorf argued before this year's debates began, there is no reason why presidential debates should follow the structure of competitive college-style debating. The problem is not the variation on some ideal format but something much deeper.

Not only do I not think that there is a meaningful problem with the structure of the presidential debates, but I continue to think that debates can be a valuable tool. In my reaction to this year's first presidential debate, I argued that "good debaters beat bad debaters," no matter the venue. And it is important for the public to know which is which.

One reader responded to my argument by saying that he does not care who the better debater is between two presidential candidates. Instead, command of facts and the ability to construct logical arguments is what matters. This argument, however, suggests that there is a difference between being a good debater and being able to construct reality-based, reasoned positions on the issues. In fact, there is no difference.

In his classic and essential essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell rejected the notion that a person can have good ideas without having the words to express them. When someone says, "I know what I mean, but I don't know how to say it," most people sympathetically nod. Orwell would say, "Then you don't really know what you mean."

Orwell's point is that the path between muddled thinking and muddled communication is not a one-way street. That is, most people seem to think that unclear thinking will always lead to unclear speaking or writing, but clear thinking might or might not find its way into clear communication. Orwell says that if you are not making your point clearly, you do not have a clear point.

10_23_Trump_Circus_01 Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump to Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton on "Saturday Night Live." Neil Buchanan writes that in the end, the presidential debates were a good idea that was defeated by the irresponsibility, laziness and superficiality of the media's political reportage. Substance almost never matters, and style only matters in unpredictable ways. What could go wrong? NBC

The practical implication of that insight is that we should be wary of politicians and their handlers who excuse sloppy communications as a mere skill deficit. George W. Bush was not coincidentally a poor speaker. He was a muddled thinker who did not care even to try to think through issues, and that became obvious any time he opened his mouth.

All of which means, again, that I should be arguing in favor of presidential debates. Forcing candidates for the highest offices in the land to express themselves, and to respond to the arguments made by their opponents, is a fair and perhaps even irreplaceable method of allowing people to see who thinks clearly, accepts facts (and is aware of them) and can respond to criticism.

Moreover, as I noted above, my favored candidate this year benefited enormously from the debates. Although she has been ahead all along, her recent surge seems to have been triggered by the first debate, and everything has gone her way since then.

Given that I sincerely believe Trump to be an existential threat to constitutional democracy (to say nothing of the future of the world), why should I not be thrilled by the role that the presidential debates seem to have played in saving all of us from doom?

The problem, as I have noted over and over again for the past month, is that these debates are not judged by the important standards that make debating valuable. After the first presidential debate, I was stunned to read that even left-leaning commentators had been scoring the first part of the debate as a win for Trump.

How was that possible? As everyone now knows, Trump was simply lying his way through every aspect of that debate (as he did during the next two), and his supposedly compelling arguments about international trade during the first 20 minutes were backed up by neither evidence nor logic. But, the commentators insisted, he was supposedly being persuasive and "connecting" with voters.

During the first half of the third debate, Trump was just as bad. Asked about the Supreme Court, he could not even get himself to say clearly that Roe v. Wade would be overturned if he were to become president. He attacked Justice Ruth Ginsburg for attacking him. He said that Clinton would destroy the Second Amendment.

In other words, Trump was doing what he always does, inside and outside of debates. He seized on issues that he knows nothing about—for example, late-term abortions—and repeated some things that he had read on some right-wing website about babies being ripped out of wombs the day before birth. Truly uninformed nonsense.

Yet, as Slate's Jim Newell usefully points out, "much of the post-debate conventional wisdom on cable news and the internet suggests that Donald Trump was having a fine debate for the first 50 minutes or so." Newell strongly disagrees with that conventional wisdom, and so do I. But what does this tell us about the conventional wisdom?

This is not merely a matter of Trump being judged against low expectations. Instead, the idea was that as long as he was talking about issues, he was doing well. It did not matter that what he said was fantastical idiocy, because he was talking about issues, which apparently sounded serious or presidential or something.

Add in the punditocracy's core belief that Clinton is too wonky and the result is a consensus that whenever the debates were boring, Trump was winning. And this suggests that a Trumpian idiot candidate in the future who is not also a crazed megalomaniac could "win" these debates.

Do we need to remind ourselves again that this year's vice presidential debate was widely judged a win for Mike Pence because he did not seem fidgety, even though he spent the debate gaslighting the world about what Trump has said? (Pence on Trump's outrageous statements, in a nutshell: "That's nonsense. He would never say that.")

As I noted after that debate, Pence benefited from the random reversal of pundits' belief that Al Gore had lost a debate in 2000 by being too condescending. And Mitt Romney's lie-filled 2012 debate was deemed a win because he seemed to "command the stage," whatever that might mean.

From a purely partisan standpoint, then, liberals—indeed, anyone who is horrified by the prospect of Trump becoming president—should not conclude that Clinton's three wins validate the importance of presidential debates. After all, Clinton has been leading all along, and much of what has damaged Trump (the partial tax returns, the Access Hollywood tape and subsequent accusations of sexual assault) coincided with the debates, but they would have happened in any case.

And from a nonpartisan standpoint, we now know with absolute certainty that there is simply no correlation between the valuable knowledge that debates can provide and the impact of that information on the political response to the debates. These are high-stakes events that can turn on the most superficial of matters, and it is not even possible to know which matters of "style" will be deemed important at any given moment. (Too angry? Not angry enough? Too analytical? Not relatable?)

The good news is that, running as an incumbent in 2020, President Clinton will be perfectly positioned to suggest that the debates be abandoned. No one could accuse her of being scared of debating, and if anything, she would seem to be giving up an advantage.

In the end, the presidential debates were a good idea that were defeated by the irresponsibility, laziness and superficiality of our media's political reportage. Substance almost never matters, and style only matters in unpredictable ways. What could go wrong?

Right now, nearly everyone is expressing relief that this year's debates are over. It would be even better if we never again had to anticipate these ridiculously dangerous events, or the mindless coverage that accompanies them.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts and law, and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.