By Lee H. Hamilton
We’re in the middle of the presidential debates, and not surprisingly, they’re drawing viewers in great numbers.
This is hardly a bad thing. Overall, presidential debates are a plus for the public dialogue. Yet I think our focus on debates—at least in the form they currently take — is misplaced: they don’t actually help us make a good choice. Here’s why:
I’ve sat in on a lot of meetings at the White House where foreign and domestic policy was discussed. Presidents want to hear different opinions, seek advice, and then go off and make a decision. The choices a president has to make are often very difficult — almost by definition, an issue doesn’t get to that level unless it’s a tough one. What this means is that the real quality you’re looking for in a President is judgment: the ability to consider issues from all angles, weigh options carefully, and then choose the wisest course —s ometimes from among a tangle of unpalatable alternatives.
The qualities necessary to do this do not come through in the debates, which tell us very little about how candidates would do at exercising judgment in the fog of policy-making. A campaign event that calls for impassioned oratory, a quick wit, one-liners, and sharp digs is not especially helpful for helping us choose who is going to make the best decisions.
I think we can do better. Selecting a president is serious business. We want to put control of the process on the voters’ side, and not let the candidates get away with fluff.
How do we do this? We change the nature of the debates. To begin with, I believe there should be a series of them, each focused on a single issue—education, say, or national security. Candidates should face a panel of questioners asking them to address the toughest questions on those matters who will press them when they spout mush. Ideally, the candidates should face this panel one at a time, rotating who goes first, and with other rules to assure fairness.
The point is we want voters to go to the polls not just with a good idea of where the candidates want to take us but how they’re going to get there. We also want voters to have a clear sense of how sound the candidates’ judgment is, because that’s ultimately what will make or break their presidency.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.
; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.