The recent presidential debates have focused attention on the wrong questions about candidates: their positions on various issues.
Watching these debates has been more and more painful. I'm currently preparing a lecture about critical thinking for the Corvallis, Oregon, Academy For Lifelong Learning, and the debates are providing more bad examples than can possibly fit into one lecture!
Unfortunately, the debaters have focused heavily on national medical policy, a problem I have been studying, thinking, and writing about for a dozen years. What we have heard from all of them — with the partial exception of Bernie Sanders — is a confusing mixture of sense and nonsense.
The main problem, however, is not that debaters are confusing the public about medical policy. They have spent too much time bickering about proposed policies in general, not just medical policy. Their focus on policy proposals distracts voters from far more important considerations: the character, experience and temperament of the candidates.
Voters shouldn't give much weight to candidates' policy proposals. Politics is the art of the possible, and most "plans" of the successful candidate are unlikely to be implemented. Many presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have supported national medical insurance, but until Barack Obama nothing much got done, aside from Medicare and Medicaid during the Johnson administration.
Voting for someone because we like their policy proposals makes little sense. People who support Sanders because they support (as I do) Medicare for All are likely setting themselves up for extreme disappointment when Congress won't enact it. People who vote against Sanders because he favors Medicare for All are also assuming that presidents have more power than they actually do.
Regrettably, evaluating candidates' character, experience, and temperament on the basis of sound bites and images projected through the mass media, including debates, is nearly impossible.
We elect presidents to confront problems and opportunities that cannot be predicted. We must therefore try to guess who might be best equipped to deal with unknowable situations.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected by people who didn't anticipate Pearl Harbor and World War II. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were elected by people who did not foresee the Soviet Union's collapse. We elected George W. Bush not knowing that 9/11 was going to happen. For better or, sometimes, for worse, these gentlemen had to lead the United States in dealing with unexpected developments.
We need presidents who can wade into confusing new situations, evaluate problems and opportunities with the aid of intelligent and experienced advisers who do not all agree with one another, and make reasonable decisions about what to do. The need for good advisers suggests that another important presidential skill is to be a good judge of talent and merit in other people.
We cannot evaluate such abilities by watching debates. A candidate's one-on-one discussion at some length with a skilled interviewer is much more likely to reveal how his or her mind works.
I remember seeing Ohio Governor John Kasich — seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — kicking ideas around with a reporter. I could almost see the gears in his mind meshing together smoothly as he responded thoughtfully to questions the reporter raised. And I thought that his experience in Congress and as governor of a large state, and his approach to thinking, would make him an excellent president.
Even casual conversations can give us hints of candidates' suitability for office. Shortly after the 2016 election, Michael Bloomberg phoned Donald Trump, and Trump told him his latest predicament was quickly hiring people to fill out his government.
Bloomberg: "Hire a lot of people smarter than you."
Trump: "There is no one smarter than me."
Of course, as Machiavelli noted 500 years ago, "A prince who is without any wisdom himself cannot be well advised" no matter how good the advisers are.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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