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Presidential Candidates' Debates Offer Little for Voters, Opines Lee Hamilton '52

February 16, 2012

Lee Hamilton 010sv"Some prominent Republicans are worried that the nonstop series of GOP debates has done their party more harm than good by showcasing all the differences among the candidates," writes Lee H. Hamilton, veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in an op-ed column. "The debates’ impact on the campaign is interesting, but they raise a larger issue that shouldn’t get lost in presidential horse-race coverage. It has to do with how the average voter gets to know a candidate, whether for the presidency or for a seat in Congress -- and what we ought to know about a candidate before we make up our minds."

Hamilton, a Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and later co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group, believes -- if structured properly -- the televised sessions could have value, but he asks, "Can we devise a political campaign in this country that allows us to get beyond the debates’ one-liners, superficial answers and stage-managed images, to an in-depth, wide-open discussion with opportunity for extensive follow-up?"

He argues that time spent preparing for and appearing in the debates is time spent away from people in face-to-face settings, noting, "Debates move the candidate toward the television screen and in some important ways away from the voter."

Lee Hamilton WISH May2011The column continues, "More fundamentally, it’s worth asking to what extent debates give voters the information they need to make discriminating choices. You want a politician to be able to think on her feet and to be articulate, of course; agility with both words and ideas is a valuable political skill. But in public officials we want more than a good debater. Debates tend to harden candidates’ positions, rewarding indignation and forcefully stated convictions. They show us nothing of a candidate’s ability to work toward common ground with people who disagree — which is, of course, the essence of governing. And debates steer candidates away from in-depth exploration of complex issues -- witness, for instance, the almost total lack of foreign-policy discussion in the series of GOP presidential debates."

Suggesting fixes, Hamilton offers, "Debates could benefit from avoiding the one-minute-statement, 30-second-rebuttal format, and instead allow for true discussion in a format that would allow voters to see how the candidates address major issues in reasonable juxtaposition with one another. After all, that’s what elected officials have to be able to do -- so why not let the electorate see them at it before they get elected? There are many important qualities that debates do not test: the ability to build consensus, to work with people of differing opinionsLee Hamilton 2010Aug UST and backgrounds, to make sound judgments about what’s best for the country, to sort through complex issues and arrive at proposals that move the nation forward. These are qualities that voters can gauge only by seeing candidates in action on the stump, by hearing them explain in depth how they would approach our big challenges, and by watching them as they encounter people from all walks of life."

Access the complete essay by clicking here.

A history major and basketball standout at DePauw, Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. The man called "Mr. Integrity" by Newsweek is the recipient of the Churchill Award for Statesmanship, the Eisenhower Medal for exceptional leadership, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Freedom From Fear Award, among many other honors.

On March 15, 2011, he returned to DePauw to deliver a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture.  A summary including video clips can be accessed here.

Access another recent column by Lee Hamilton here.

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