Who says the better public debater makes for a better president? Really no one. But pundits both popular and academic continue to genuflect to the notion that somehow presidential debates "elevate the quality of political discourse."Few sacred cows receive such preferred care and feeding. The obvious flaws are hidden behind a smokescreen of format phobia. But not even a format delivered on tablets from Mount Sinai could solve the fundamental problem of presidential debates.
Anyone who has ever arranged a debate is well aware that whatever the format, time limits are going to distort the amount, quality and clarity of the information provided.
Scholastic and intercollegiate debaters deal with this difficulty by narrowing the topic of the debate to a specific proposition that can be handled in the time allotted.
The presidency, however, offers up an unlimited number of potential issues. Past attempts to restrict the scope of a given debate to domestic affairs, international affairs, or economic issues, have done little to improve the situation.
No amount of effort to construct an ideal format can succeed under current constraints. Perhaps more importantly, the quality of the debates will depend not upon format, but upon the participants' intentions. Effective public debate depends upon advocates who have ideas and are seeking to lead the public to those ideas.
For contemporary presidential candidates there is a strong presumption that getting elected is the purpose of these debates. Leadership is something that will follow after November.
Unfortunately, once a public has been trained to expect only self-serving rhetoric reflective of the latest opinion polling, subsequent attempts to invoke a rhetoric more suited to leadership are likely to be treated with mistrust.
Debate in the service of public spectacle is a different animal from debate as a truth-seeking process. The present televised version of the debates is a cloaking device, making what appears to be public education a mock melodrama.
It's a little like donning academic robes for a mud-wrestling bout.
In one sense this is not as much an intended deception as it is a natural outcome of the fact we are not really interested in the issues. And, by the way, that is not irrational.
The things we want to know are about the individual candidates themselves. Some have said that the debates do at least accomplish this. They say that this is the one place a potential president can be separated from his speech writers and undergo a lonely dissection in full public view.
But now that the Democratic and Republican parties have apparently taken over the debate process, there is precious little chance for success in even the limited goal of making the candidates stand alone.
Aside from whether the subversion of the role of the non-partisan League of Women Voters will guarantee debates as heavily orchestrated as were the nominating conventions, will anyone watching really care about anything other than how the candidates "score" on one another?
We can be concerned when a would-be president appears confused as to the geography and politics of Poland, but how important is a quick tongue in a world where the hair-trigger strategy of nuclear "launch-on-warning" should make all of us wary of rapid responses.
In the absence of rules imposed by an authority beyond the reach of the candidates or the parties, presidential debates can produce little more than a struggle by each man to take on the image of hero and fasten on his opponent the specter of incompetence or evil intentions.
The struggle is to see who can look like Hulk Hogan and make his opponent look like "The Sheik."
(Stephen C. Koch is director of Forensics in the School of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University.)