On Monday night, I watched a pretty dull game show on prime-time television. This quiz show featured seven contestants and at least twice as many questioners, and it lasted two hours. The host appeared to mark the time by grunting every few seconds during the answers, and the apparent point was for the contestants to keep talking until the host started grunting loud enough to distract them from their answers.
What's that you say? That wasn’t a game show, but the way the media wants the public to select the next major-party challenger for the presidential election? I find that as difficult to believe as a congressman thinking that people will just forget that he tweeted his genitalia over the internet.
Unfortunately, it's true. Every four years, the American media decide that the best way to showcase the potential leadership of the U.S. and the free world is to crowd as many candidates as possible on a stage and play College Bowl, only with shorter time for answers. Instead of asking a question that only requires a brief, specific answer, contestants — excuse me, candidates — are tormented with open-ended questions on broad issues:
Q: In thirty seconds, please explain how you will approach entitlement reform.
A: Er ... carefully?
Monday's CNN debate managed to combine the usual inanity with a healthy dose of incompetent innovation. CNN selected John King as the moderator and the timekeeper, and needless to say, that didn’t exactly work out well. Instead of signaling with a light that time had expired, King started grunting a few seconds after candidates began their answers... or when King felt the answers were non-responsive... or whenever King felt like grunting. This led to several exchanges when the contestants — darn it, candidates — asked King if they could please finish speaking before he jumped to the next question.
That's not to say that we didn’t learn some important answers from our potential candidates during the evening. Thanks to a brilliant new addition to the debate format, CNN and King managed to teach us that Rick Santorum prefers Jay Leno over Conan O'Brien, Tim Pawlenty prefers Coke to Pepsi, Ron Paul prefers BlackBerries to iPhones, and Michele Bachmann prefers Ludwig von Mises to John Maynard Keynes. Of course, I’m only joking on the last point. Why would a media debate moderator ask about economic policy? King actually asked Bachmann in her difficult "This or That" question to choose between Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash, and Rep. Bachmann immediately disqualified herself from Round Two by picking both. No bonus prizes for Bachmann this time!
In fact, we heard about those four topics as well as Mitt Romney’s chicken-wing preference ("Spicy"!), Herman Cain's pizza crust choice ("Deep dish," in his trademark baritone), and Newt Gingrich’s talent-show pick (American Idol over Dancing with the Stars) before King or any of the reporters asked the panel about energy policy. That’s no joke; CNN didn’t bother to ask a question about energy policy until the very end of a two-hour presidential debate. Only two questions early in the debate directly addressed jobs, despite unemployment being one of the most important issues for voters this year, and King cut Romney short on the first by telling him that "we'll have a lot of time on the topic."
A presidential debate in 2011 that asks two questions on job creation and one on energy policy needs little mockery. It's practically self-parody.
Otherwise, the faults of Monday's debate can hardly be blamed on CNN. Every media outlet turns presidential election debates into game shows, complete with distractingly busy sets and high-tech displays. A debate between two or possibly three candidates might be a worthwhile effort, as long as the candidates had time to focus on issues and take time to explain and argue policy. Like almost all such debates, this event generated little insight into public policy, but plenty of opportunity for candidates to practice their well-scripted "ad libs."
For instance, Tim Pawlenty will almost certainly lose points for failing to take King's bait, and expand on his "ObamneyCare" quip from earlier in the week. No one will focus on his actual health care policy, mind you, but on whether he had the nerve (or the bad manners, depending on your point of view) to repeat the dig during the debate. Debates serve little except as source material for five-second soundbites that media analysts endlessly recycle for years, while neglecting to explain how any of it has relevance to actual governing policy or skill.
At the end of the debate, rather than allow candidates a chance to give a closing statement, King instead asked each to share with the audience what they learned from the previous two hours. Hopefully, they all learned that these silly quiz-show events tell us nothing of importance about the candidates except their potential to play Jeopardy, and that their time — and ours — would be put to better use in giving speeches, producing detailed policy positions, and meeting people in person rather than answering questions about chicken wings and late-night talk shows. They should have learned that the answer to "This or That" is neither when it comes to media debates. "No" should be their final answer when asked to do another, and it should be ours when asked to watch, too.