Beginning with Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, major party nominations and presidential election campaigns have increasingly been subjected to forms of circus television we carelessly label “debates.”
With rough equality for all contestants regardless of their prospects, these productions have come to rival fund-raising in their importance to the candidates. Furnishing a free forum for pandering, televised debates can make or (more likely) break candidacies.
Examined from another vantage point, it’s fairly clear that the public interest to be served – civic education – has inevitably been compromised by television acting as its promotional medium. In the process (as Marshall McLuhan taught us would happen) the presentations have taken on the unmistakable traits of what television does best: quiz shows and sporting events. For proof, simply recall the serial face-offs of both political parties in 2008, or watch this cycle’s wrestling matches among Republicans.
Not surprisingly, given that television’s core is video, appearance was first to gain influence over discourse, and did so at the outset. What then-Vice President Nixon had to say about Quemoy and Matsu mattered little (and supposedly only to radio listeners) while his perspiring upper lip “lost” to then-Senator Kennedy.
Three decades and two wars later, the camera caught the first President Bush checking his wristwatch, unaware that viewers’ response to his apparent indifference would be “your time is up.”
The roots of what we have now can be seen in reruns of “What’s My Line?” “I’ve Got A Secret,” “Jeopardy!” and in every post-game sports analysis program. With instant polling through Internet voting and texting, we now even have scorecards! No need to follow the flow of campaign contributions to gauge the winners and losers.
In effect, the debates have been absorbed by the culture of our television. Thus, 30-second commercials have trained us to accept sound bites for thoughtfulness, and the competitive elements of sport (especially football) have transformed argument into “gotcha” politics. For good and ill, that’s mostly what we have. You needn’t be a couch potato to be comfortable with what television delivers.
Who can say that this process is better or worse than the back door deals that brought us (albeit indirectly) a President Truman? Inarguably, television’s sponsorship of debates, together with its saturation coverage of the primaries, has (but for the campaign funds component) opened our election systems for 24/7 viewing. It does so, however, on its terms – and those terms often distort electoral politics. Take the matter of what has come to be labeled “flip-flopping.”
Under many circumstances, flip-flopping should be deemed a virtue. In respectable company it consists of revising your judgment after reconsidering an issue. Call it changing your mind.
Rather than promoting an understanding of issues, televised debates have conditioned us to reject an open mind by promoting the gotcha moments of the format; and the best of those are when the suspect is accused of flip-flopping and the pundits press the case ad nauseam.
Just consider a few flip-flops of no small consequence: Jefferson stretching the Constitution with the Louisiana purchase; Wilson entering World War I despite his contrary promise; Nixon opening China after decades searching for who “lost” it. The benefits of those flips cannot seriously be disputed.
Yet hardly anything can doom a candidate more surely than being called a flip-flopper. A philanderer or alcoholic can be rehabilitated through counseling or rehab but there’s no forgiveness or reform for a flip-flopper exposed on live television.
To the candidate, it’s become a fault worse than indecision. When confronted, he or she can only retreat into alibis concocted of misunderstandings, or the missing context, or some other nonsense such as John Kerry’s explanation that he voted no before voting yes (or the other way around) about the Iraq war.