No More Foreign Policy Debates

There will be debates about foreign policy, of course, but the sad spectacle of the last presidential debate of 2012 suggests that the idea of a presidential debate dedicated to foreign policy has officially reached the point of diminishing returns.

By my rough estimate, the two candidates used more than one quarter of debate time to talk about domestic economic policy.  At least half of the remaining time was spent agreeing on broad foreign policy points — Drones are good! Israel is our friend! Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014! — and the remaining half was used to debate Governor Romney’s assertion that his foreign policy would be the same as Obama’s, only better.  (And both of them would have basically the same foreign policy as George W. Bush.)

The particulars of this debate were not the problem.  No, the problem lies in the substance.  The candidates continually veered back to domestic policy because, as the bank robber Willy Sutton allegedly said, that’s where the money is.  Voters care about foreign policy when we are attacked, e.g. September 11th, and they care when war weariness is an issue, e.g. the final years of the war in Iraq.  But even in these cases they can only care so much.

Obama’s victory in the debate was preordained after a fashion.  An incumbent president enters into every foreign policy debate with a distinct advantage, since it is unlikely that his or her opponent has actually crafted foreign policy, and if they have, it is also unlikely that they did so recently.  (An exception to this rule would’ve been a debate between President Obama and Ambassador Huntsman, but the stars were not in the ambassador’s favor.)  Few expected Governor Romney to win.  That said, it is not because of fairness to a challenger that the foreign policy debate should be scrapped.

The numbers and press reports tell us a clear story, which is that voters don’t make up their minds based on foreign policy.  And the candidates oblige us.  When, for instance, was the last time Vice President Biden was as substantive on foreign policy as Senator Biden had consistently been?  (Let us set aside, for the moment, that Senator Biden was considerably to the left of Vice President Biden on foreign policy.)  And it was not a mark of weakness nor an admission of defeat for Governor Romney to conclude the “foreign policy” debate with remarks that were 80% domestic policy and 20% fluff about peace.  Those remarks were planned, not spontaneous.  It was Romney’s silent admission that the the foreign policy debate is useless.

Unfortunately, the first camp to declare the foreign policy debate obsolete and call for changes will be attacked for not caring about foreign policy.  The current debate system locks both parties into a kind of mutually assured destruction, which means only an outside group, such as the Commission on Presidential Debates or another independent voice, could get momentum moving on changing the structure of US presidential debates.

If the foreign policy debate really does get scrapped for the 2016 election, what should take its place?  One of my personal thought experiments wound up getting independently mirrored as a Tweet today:

 
A four-person debate, with a moderator, would give the vice presidents another chance to shine or falter.   It would illustrate the teamwork and complementary styles of the ticket.  Most importantly, it would allow the candidates to double clothesline the competition.  I kid.  Somewhat.  But we shouldn’t stop there.

We should also consider a final, unmoderated debate, a freewheeling discussion on the issues.  (A timekeeper could help manage the candidates but not offer any questions.)  Without a lifeline or inane questions from a moderator, the candidates would be free to inspire — or disgust — the American people.  It would remove one of the most enervating aspects of the modern presidential debate, the stultifying web of rules and pre-debate agreements which ensure that the two candidates only debate around the margins and suck all of the spontaneity out of the room.  Lastly, it would turn the presidential debate into what it deserves to be — a battle of the wits, not just a battle of the debate coaches.

Our proposed debate schedule looks like this:

  1. Presidential debate on the economy
  2. Vice-presidential debate
  3. Presidential town hall debate
  4. “Tag team” debate
  5. Unmoderated presidential debate

Of course, five debates might seem like a lot to an American public who couldn’t really be bothered to tune into the final debate, but after the primary season and its seemingly endless debates, would it be so bad to have one more debate if it could be a debate that truly mattered?

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