On the Zero Marginal Product of Televised Debates

By Kevin

Regarding this open letter trying to shame ABC.

We're at a crucial moment in our country's history, facing war, a terrorism threat, recession, and a range of big domestic challenges. Large majorities of our fellow Americans tell pollsters they're deeply worried about the country's direction. In such a context, journalists moderating a debate--who are, after all, entrusted with free public airwaves--have a particular responsibility to push and engage the candidates in serious debate about these matters. Tough, probing questions on these issues clearly serve the public interest. Demands that candidates make pledges about a future no one can predict or excessive emphasis on tangential "character" issues do not. This applies to candidates of both parties.

Ah, politics... We're always at a crucial point in history, aren't we? The authors say ABC moderators should push candidates on policy, not character. I find this utterly pointless. Might be better to ask them to talk about their favorite cartoon characters. At least we'd learn something new.

Frankly, at this point in the election cycle, we should know exactly where the candidates stand on the most serious policy issues. A candidate that respects the intelligence of the American academic voter would have his staff write honest domestic and international policy proposals, to as detailed a level as is actionable.

And while we know their soundbites and general operating principles, we don't know specifically what Presidential candidates want to do, because even their detailed proposals on issues that are not subject to the vicissitudes of war (like paying for medical care), are simply extensive marketing strategy documents.

I mean, take a good, hard look at Sen. Clinton's "American Health Choices Plan" and Sen. Obama's "Plan for a Healthy America". I have. At best, they are not executable as designed, rely on a hodgepodge of studies of sundry qualities, and assume almost laughably low levels of implementation risk. These are rough guidelines about how these candidates would act, made up to impress. They do not.

Do our letter authors think 50 minutes more of serious debate is going to clarify the differences in immigration policy or healthcare policy between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama? Really?

While a debate presents an additional opportunity for candidates to be powerful, forthright, and rhetorically brilliant, I remain completely unconvinced that any publicly televised debate between candidates generates any information about character or public policy that is not easily available elsewhere.

So I don't value televised debate highly. I think our letter-writers need to step back a minute from their morality campaign against ABC. They should ask themselves whether the high personal and political values they expected from the Sen. Clinton-Sen. Obama debate had any chance of being realized with 50 more minutes of policy discussion.

Would any televised debate be so bountiful? Isn't it more truthful to say that debates, to the academic-oriented, provide zero marginal product?

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