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October 16, 2012 8:10 AM Pre-Debate Blogging

By Jonathan Bernstein

Ezra Klein writes:

I hate that debate rules are effectively set by the campaigns rather than by a body representing voters.

Okay, three things. First of all: the campaigns do represent the voters! Each candidate was duly selected by his political party; the parties are made up of….voters!

Second, and this doesn’t get to his complaint, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s basically a miracle that we have solidly institutionalized debates in the first place. As I’ve said, if you like the debates, thank Ronald Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton). Reagan didn’t have to debate in 1984, and probably took on a fair amount of unnecessary risk by doing it. If he had chosen not to do it there’s every chance the tradition would have died right there. By 1996, the norm was far better established, but Clinton still could have made unreasonable demands and hope that negotiations broke down.

And the third point…look, I’ve criticized aspects of the debates, and I agree with a lot of the specific complaints about the questions that were asked (or not asked) in the first two rounds this year…but the truth is that the format used in the first two debates quite properly, in my view, gave the candidates plenty of opportunity to change the subject and switch to other topics they believed were important. Too many questions about the deficit? Then a candidate had a great opportunity to say that the deficit isn’t as important as…whatever is more important than the deficit.

And anyway, you know what? The truth is that the debates don’t matter all that much, and even more to the point they shouldn’t matter all that much. Something important wasn’t discussed? So what. The candidates have had months to talk about what they want — and have done so, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of TV ads and other communication with the voters. I don’t mind that we have debates; it’s a worthwhile ritual, and a way of getting more politics where people will see it, and people seem to like them (including me!). But we shouldn’t pretend that they show the “real” candidates, or that watching them is a good way of deciding one’s vote choice, or that minor changes in format or question topics will affect much of anything other than immediate entertainment value, or even that they should be perfectly fair to, well, anyone. They’re just not worth fighting about, really.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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