Debates Have Consequences

One of the observations I made in my book is that election debates have played a central role in defining our political culture and–perhaps as a consequence–have frequently been central to our definitions of political candidates, especially at the national level. Political TV shows as diverse as The Good Wife and The West Wing have featured debate episodes as crucial showcase episodes. Notably, for both of these shows, traditional political debates (such as the ones we are currently experiencing on a weekly basis during the extended primary season) are faulted as being inauthentic and as failing to provide rational criteria for viewers to evaluate the candidates and their positions on key issues. The Good Wife goes further to suggest that debates foster false political divisions between candidates that may share a number of values politically, as when Alicia and Frank have a “real” debate in the kitchen. Similarly, The West Wing evokes nostalgia for the Lincoln-Douglas debates as compared to our current situation, in which debates are overwhelmed by the needs of the broader political spectacle.

That being said, debates can provide some of the most memorable pieces of political imagery, shaping our views not only of specific candidates but also the role of government itself, of competing political visions. They can, like elections themselves, have consequences. The most recent example of this is the exchange between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in which Christie successfully lands the critique of Rubio that he is a Washington politician who simply repeats the same “25-second soundbite” rather than actually accomplishing anything.

Rubio’s stumble here is magnified by the fact that he repeats the soundbite twice after Christie has called him on his reliance on soundbites. Of course, we now know that Christie did not himself reap any benefits from this exchange. His poll numbers in New Hampshire remained stagnant, and he has since dropped out of the race. But he has clearly put the Rubio campaign on the defensive, at least for the next few weeks, and Christie’s comments have provided substance for an existing perception of Rubio’s candidacy, one that will find itself expressed repeatedly through Facebook memes, Twitter hashtags, and other forms of political entertainment.

The exchange also illustrates one of the powerful appeals of debates. Their liveness assures us that “anything” can happen, that the potential for a consequential moment is always on the horizon.

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