Time was when running for President of the United States came after years of public service, building a national base and racking up life experience that could credibly suggest an individual was prepared to serve the nation in a complicated world if elected. Watching most of a 3-hour debate last week and hearing the commentary before and after show, makes me think we’ve managed to turn one of the most important elements of a democracy into a reality TV event in search of television audiences. And, there are real consequences!
My sensibilities about this come from the good fortune of having had a direct engagement in five presidential campaigns; two of which I was involved in running. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Pete Wilson all spent years in public life. They operated in the world of elected office and had executive branch experience. They dealt extensively with domestic and foreign policy. And, they traveled the country for years building their national political base and they traveled the world building understanding and relationships with foreign leaders. All this before ever announcing an ambition to seek the presidency.
In these efforts, the individuals who would become presidential candidates gained a better understanding of the country; and, citizens in early and important primary states gained an understanding of those who were “testing the waters.” Now, it seems there are no “waters.” Simply announcing gives an individual media attention. Professional fundraisers turn that into cash. The cash pays for advertising — a one-way form of communications where a candidate cannot listen. With enough cash and enough advertising airtime, polling begins to register some “movement.” That generates news…especially cable news. Soon, someone is rising in the eyes of the media.
The big break comes not for a surprising victory in Iowa (Bush, 1980) or a crushing win in New Hampshire (Reagan, 1980). No, the big break comes by getting time on the stage of a nationally televised debate. Even more, once scheduled to participate, commentators surmise one’s chances. The pundits explain what someone “has to do.” And, after the televised event, commentators share their instant view of how people did. Who had a better opening statement. Who got the best shot at the front runner is determined. I even heard this past weekend a critique of who had the funniest line of the debate (Booker: “…my answer is no…and, to translate that into Spanish, no.”)
Now, you can’t really criticize a person for entering the contest as it is presently configured. But, it used to be a voyage taken by an experienced and well-known statesman like individual. Today, it goes to those who crave television time and can raise the funds to meet the rather low threshold for the right to be on the show.
It’s argued that second tier candidates know they cannot win. However, many do win in their own way. Suddenly, we have people who in virtually every case expand their reputation well beyond anything they have previously enjoyed because of media exposure. Even if the probability of Oval Office success is remote, they might land in the cabinet. Or, maybe even on the ticket. They increase their possibility for success in seeking a higher office than the one they hold, if they even hold one. And, then there is always the possibility that from defeat will come a highly charged career as a pundit….always interesting to see how many people who having failed to win an election suddenly have such pithy views about what it takes to get elected.
I think we’ve broken the process so necessary to a presidential quest. The early televised debates for the many who seek exposure has had the effect of turning this important process away from building personal experience and a following into a televised reality show of sorts. And, my experience suggests that the skills necessary to perform in a televised debate do not perfectly align with what it takes to be a successful chief executive of the nation.
Of course, knowing something is broken and fixing it are very different things. I would like to think that there could be some agreement not to have these early televised debates. Let the field compete inside the key early primary states with the four or five leading candidates sharing local stages where issues can really be discussed – another big thing with me. Imagine telling someone that you would really like to hear their views on a matter of mutual interest and then letting them know you’ve allocated one minute and fifteen seconds for them to share their thoughts.
Trouble is, there are too many forces driving the early debates. Fundraisers want their candidates to get the airtime. Candidates want to increase their television exposure. The media wants and needs content, so these shows are passed off as news events where the political journalists share time in the chairs as the panelists in the debates.
In the end, voters really will make the decisions. And, if the early debates really meant much in determining who would be elected, there would be a list of former presidents very different than what history offers. However, the trend is disturbing. Mastering the early media show “primary process” brings attention and contributions. To the extent we allow the media show to replace real engagement over years of service to our citizens, we put ourselves at risk of lowering the threshold to reach the highest public office in the land. And, wouldn’t that be a shame.
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore.