Nelson W. Polsby
Are presidential debates a good idea? Embedded in this deceptively simple question are several others, not so easy to formulate or to answer. When we discuss presidential debates, are we discussing some idealized notion of presidential debates, or presidential debates of the kind we are most likely to get? Is the implicit model the Ford-Carter debates or the Kennedy-Nixon debates or perhaps even the LincolnDouglas debates? What sorts of constraints, controls, or conditions should govern presidential debates? Who should monitor or impose these conditions? If presidential debates are a bad idea, should they be prohibited? If they are a good idea, should they be made mandatory?
The contribution that presidential debates in some idealized sense are supposed to make to American politics can be stated compactly. They are supposed to contribute to public enlightenment in at least two ways: (1) By exhibiting the main presidential candidates in a situation in which they relinquish control over the agenda, and hence must react spontaneously, it is thought that candidates' real capabilities and limitations can be discovered. (2) By subjecting the candidates to similar stimuli, any differences in the responses can be attributed to genuine differences in their basic characters or personalities or philosophies and hence can be considered reliably predictive of real differences in their likely conduct of the presidential office. Debates are therefore to be regarded as an especially useful form of public discussion, without which, as democratic theory instructs us, public choice is uninformed and irrational. Rationality, the conscious adaptation of means to ends, is a necessary condition of choice processes in which citizens get approximately what they want in the way of public officials and public policy. Debates, therefore, can be seen at a mini-