The Not-So-Great Debates

The four kinds of political debates this campaign season.

Chris Coons debates Christine O’Donnell

No one wins in political debates—least of all the audience. We know it’s a bad idea to watch them. But we watch anyway, thinking: This could be it. This debate, unlike the others, could begin with an exchange of bon mots, transition to witty jousting, probe deeply into most pressing issues of our time, build with a set of passionate but non-clichéd paeans to the American idea, and climax with a final parry-thrust that leaves a verbal dagger lodged in the lesser candidate’s larynx.

That never happens. Viewers are instead subjected to a fire hose of context-free assertions and vague cant. Arguments are oversimplified. Rhetorical pivots are uncreative. Personal attacks are never as vicious as you hope. Even a great train wreck is too much to ask.

It was with some masochism, then, that I reached for my toothpicks, propped open my eyelids, and watched as many debates this week as my brain would permit: Eight in four days, including those between House, Senate, or gubernatorial candidates in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Nevada, and Wisconsin. The events, while insufferable, did reveal the fault lines of this year’s midterm elections.

Regular American vs. Lifelong Politician
If there’s one thing that counts against candidates this year, it’s knowing what they’re doing. “I had no political aspirations,” Ron Johnson, the Republican candidate running against Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, reminded the crowd at a debate Monday. “This is not my life’s ambition.” Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor of California, similarly compared herself with Democrat Jerry Brown: “I’m not a career politician.” “Do we want to send this gentleman to Washington?” Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell asked an audience on Wednesday about her opponent, Chris Coons. “I say no. He’s a career politician.”

It’s no coincidence that many of the candidates making the “career politician” claim come from the business world. The difference between politicians and businessmen? “He’s never created a job,” said Johnson of Feingold. “My job was creating jobs, your job was politics,” said Whitman, who was chief executive of eBay, to Brown. “Have you created any jobs in our country?” asked former WWE CEO Linda McMahon of her Democratic opponent in the Connecticut Senate race, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Never mind that the job they’re running for wouldn’t create jobs, according to their logic.

Business people have another advantage this cycle: They finance their own campaigns. Whitman bragged about how she’s spent her own money—unlike Brown, who she says relies on contributions from special interests. McMahon made the same accusation of Blumenthal. Blumenthal responded like, well, a lifelong politician. “The people of Connecticut know me.” The crowd laughed.

Insider vs. Outsider
Everyone in this cycle wants to portray himself as the outsider, the lone wolf, the guy everyone in Washington hates so much, he’ll need a personal bodyguard. Longtime politicians struggle hardest to establish their outsider bona fides. “This is not about civility or go along to get along,” said Indiana Republican Senate candidate Dan Coats, whose civility got him elected to the Senate once before. “We don’t go there and sing ‘Kumbaya’ across the aisle.” Michael Bennet, the former Denver schools superintendent who’s now a politician in Washington, denounced “politicians in Washington.”

Feingold, who recently bragged in an ad about what a social outcast he is, declared himself the “No. 1 enemy of Washington lobbyists” at Monday’s debate. His opponent, Johnson, did him one better: He’s such an outsider that he would defer to President Obama on policy in Afghanistan. “I haven’t seen the intelligence reports,” said Johnson. ” I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.” You don’t get further outside than that.

National vs. Local
Halfway through the Monday debate between Kentucky senatorial candidates Rand Paul and Jack Conway, Paul had mentioned Obama’s name so many times that Conway called him out: “This election isn’t about President Obama,” he said. “It’s about Jack Conway vs. Rand Paul.”*  Just as Democrats tied Republicans to Bush in 2006, the GOP is now tying Dems to Obama. Coats kept mentioning his opponent in the same breath as the “Obama-Pelosi agenda.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, facing off against Sharron Angle on Thursday, tried to emphasize his hardscrabble Nevada upbringing and bragged about keeping nuclear waste away from Yucca Mountain. But Angle (and the debate’s moderators) kept the discussion national, even managing to ding Nancy Pelosi for her remark about needing to pass the health care bill to find out what’s in it.

Exciting Weirdo Trying to Seem Boring vs. Boring Normal Person Trying to Seem Exciting
When confronted with a crazy opponent, politicians face a dilemma: Do they condescend to the person to show their superiority or show respect that might not be deserved? Coons, sitting across from O’Donnell, made his disdain clear. “I’m not going to stop every single time she says something untrue,” he said at one point. When he did decide to rebut a comment, he wasted time mourning how much more time he would need: “There’s so much to respond to, Wolf [Blitzer], I don’t know if it’s enough.”

Reid took the opposite approach, engaging Angle as if she were the sanest person in the world. Conway called Paul’s ideas “extreme” but stopped short of calling him a nutjob. (After all, that nutjob is leading in the polls.) Paul came off as beyond normal. He stressed early on that he doesn’t want to abolish government. Government is great, he said, for essential services like national security, Medicare, and roads. “When people say, ‘Gosh, could that be extreme?’ I say, well, what’s extreme is what’s going on in Washington.” Angle, too, denied wanting to destroy the federal education department—before describing everything that’s wrong with the federal education department. Ohio Republican House candidate Rich Iott, who has recently been dogged by photos of him wearing a Nazi uniform, addressed the controversy right out of the gate, accusing his opponent of “coordinating” the leak. That did not change the fact that there are photos of him wearing a Nazi uniform.

Some candidates embraced the fringe. Responding to a question about Ayn Rand, Johnson declared that “ Atlas Shrugged is a huge warning as far as what we need to avoid.” In past years, that line would get a candidate laughed out of the race. This year, it just might get him elected.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2010:This article mistakenly used the name “Ron Paul” to refer to Rand Paul. Return  to the corrected sentence.Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.