Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on last week’s vice-presidential debate. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
Obama supporters were surprised that Sarah Palin didn’t trip up in her debate with Joe Biden; but they nevertheless thought that she was incoherent through most of it. Palin’s supporters were thrilled that she came back after multiple setbacks with her interviews with Katie Couric with a slam dunk. We have become so divided as a nation that we can’t even agree on which is night and which is day.
The reason, I think, is because Sarah Palin did not answer Gwen Ifill’s questions. When a student refuses to take a test, we cannot meaningfully compare her performance with another.
Right at the outset of the debate, Palin announced her contempt for the debate format: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.” Palin’s opponents cried foul, but her supporters applauded her contempt of the media and Washington’s rules.
Here was Gwen Ifill’s first question: “The House of Representatives this week passed a bill, a big bailout bill … was this the worst of Washington or the best of Washington that we saw play out?”
This was Palin’s first non-answer: “You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America’s economy, is go to a kid’s soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, “How are you feeling about the economy?”
Biden did a classic debate pivot, but he did try to answer the question, saying “I think it’s neither the best or worst of Washington, but it’s evidence of the fact that the economic policies of the last eight years have been the worst economic policies we’ve ever had.”
Consider Ifil’s third question: “Governor, please if you want to respond to what he (Biden) said about Sen. McCain’s comments about health care?” and Palin’s petulant non-reply “I would like to respond about the tax increases.”
Or Ifill’s seventh question: “What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you’re not going to be able to keep?” Sarah Palin tried her hand at the pivot trick too: “I want to go back to the energy plan, though, because this is — this is an important one that Barack Obama, he voted for in ’05.” By pivot I mean, tangent.
In her closing statement, Palin again made clear where her priorities were. “I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard. I’d rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did.” Speak to the American people she did, but answer these tough questions she did not.
We should stop pretending that debates really happen in American politics; even the four organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer qualify. Masquerading for debate, all we get are solipsistic televised addresses delivered to us in alternating segments. Last Thursday, Gwen Ifill was little more than a two-minute time keeper with no control of how Biden and especially Palin used their time.
Let us remember why we care for debates. Because meaningful exchanges between alternative voices stand at the heart of democracy. By controlling for question, we can see how candidates measure up to each other substantively. Instead, American politics today is deluged by speeches and not debates, asymmetric communications in which politicians talk past each other rather than to each other.
Avoiding the questions and eschewing a debate may be good for a candidate but it is bad for democracy. And we should not allow Sarah Palin or any other candidate to tell us that democracy is only about connecting with people and not also debating the issues. Only demagogues insist on trading directly with the people without the watchful eye – Palin calls it the “filter” – of the media or a dissenting interlocutor. Democracy is best served by reciprocity and deliberation, not one-sided assertions to one’s base with no follow-up questions.
While Palin connected last Thursday, she hardly debated. As supporter Michelle Malkin revealingly put it: “She was warm, fresh, funny, confident, energetic, personable, relentless, and on message.” Seven ayes for style, an aye for substance, and nay to debate. The nays have it.