The fallout from this year’s presidential debates makes it clear that too many voters use these events to decide which candidate to support or how strongly to support him. This is sad enough, given the multitude of information already available about the candidates. But what’s worse is that so many people change their votes based on criteria that have little to do with successful performance as president: Who can deliver the most zingers without seeming mean? Who can obfuscate his history and platform most pleasingly? Who’s taller? Who sweats less?
The problem isn’t that these aren’t formal debates. Tinkering with the format won’t change the basic fault. And the problem isn’t that it’s a competition. Elections are essentially competitions. The problem is that it’s a stupid competition. It fails to test candidates’ performance on a central task of the presidency. Outside of election campaigns, presidents rarely engage in direct debates, and, when they do, it usually occurs behind closed doors with other rulers, rather than in public to win over an audience of plebeians.
Reality shows provide a much better model for testing candidates. If you want to know who’ll be a better chef, you have contestants cook food.
So why not test candidates at important tasks that presidents (and vice presidents) perform more frequently? Let’s give each team of candidates a series of scenarios and a group of actors who portray officials in their administration, and then let’s watch how they handle the same crisis, legislative negotiation, scandal, or whatever.
Of course, a reality show wouldn’t produce a perfect simulation of their behavior if elected. But it would be much more relevant (and, let’s face it, entertaining) than these wretched debates.