To run a good campaign is to demonstrate a talent for management, decision-making, and stamina. But the extent to which it actually resembles the work of being president is open to question. Campaigning, after all, consists mainly of arguing viciously with your opponent and then declaring you’ve won the argument. Governing, on the other hand, requires a talent for compromise, an ability to set priorities, and a willingness to make concessions.
R. Jay Magill Jr., author of the recent book “Sincerity,” believes candidates should be able to show voters how good they are at striking deals, not just tell them about it. He suggests presenting the candidates with some divisive issue, like funding for Planned Parenthood, and asking them to discuss it with each other privately, until they’re ready to announce a course of action they both can live with, and explain why. “We would, like Job, see how far they were willing to bend in order to fulfill the rules,” wrote Magill in an e-mail. “What we learn by comparing the final outcome with each candidate’s original stance is the pliability of principles and the ability to negotiate—both essential qualities for a democratic type of personality.”
Are any of these innovations remotely imaginable in American politics? Almost certainly not, said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and author of the book, “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.” “These things are micromanaged to within an inch of their lives,” Schroeder said. “The campaigns are extraordinarily protective.”
If Schroeder had his way, there’d be no rules at all: The candidates would simply plop down across from one another at a table and talk for 90 minutes: no moderator, no questions, no nothing. “It’d be a kind of test of leadership—a test to see who would take charge...how the candidates would engage each other, how one would approach the other. If they’re determining the subject matter themselves, it would be such an unpredictable, freewheeling contest that people would be really fascinated.”
Unfortunately, such a spectacle is the stuff of dreams. According to the presidential historian H. W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the only innovation the voters should hope for is that the debates are canceled altogether.
“They tell us nothing useful about how a candidate would govern,” Brands wrote in an e-mail. “In fact, in elevating performance over substance, they actually mislead voters.” This is especially true, he warned, when one of the candidates is an incumbent: “Presidents have to act presidential,” he said. “War and peace can hinge on what they say. The challenger can speak irresponsibly.”
Of course, this presumes that speaking is the only thing the candidates can do. Why not a dance-off, one wonders? Or, seeing as Halloween is right around Election Day, a costume contest? Then again, perhaps a game of chess would be the simplest thing: That way, at least, we’ll know for sure who won.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail email@example.com.