Why high-school debate teams don't have cheerleaders -- or crowds

The consensus after last night’s debate, in both the blogosphere and the commentariat, formed quickly and rather inexplicably that it failed because it was too dull.  Most people I see blamed Tom Brokaw for not spicing it up, and both candidates for putting most of the people watching it to sleep.  Ironically, this comes from the same people who complain about the lack of substance and policy and the plethora of sound-bite gotchas in most political debates.

Last night’s debate shows what we get when both candidates focus on policy and (mostly) avoid sound bites and gotchas.  It was a debate, not the political equivalent of a Roman forum or Match Game with slightly less salacious questions.  Both candidates did their best to lay out their policy preferences and their records, and while John McCain was more aggressive about contrasting himself with Barack Obama on those, both did so mainly by sticking to policies and records.

Real debates don’t make good public spectacles.  High school debates don’t get held at stadiums or gymnasiums on Friday nights in front of massive crowds.  The bands do not conduct halftime shows and cheerleaders do not appear, unless coincidentally a cheerleader is a member of the debate squad.  There is a good reason for this.  Real debates tend to be dull to everyone except the people involved, or those very interested in the topic under discussion.

Everyone complains when the candidates don’t provide substantive discussion of policy, but it appears that the truth is that very few people in the media are interested in a substantive debate.  They need headlines and hooks, and find an actual debate on substance a waste of their time.  The truth is that they don’t want a debate, because a real debate does nothing much more than compare position papers and well-established policy.  They want bloodsport, a cage match in which two candidates joust to the rhetorical death, so that they can breathlessly report on every injury — and then act superior in chastising everyone for not providing substance.

Maybe the two candidates will provide the crowds what they really want in the final debate on October 15th.  Better yet, maybe some in the media will think about their reaction and realize what a waste of time most of these presidential debates are, and how they usually reward glibness and appearance while penalizing substance and detail.  Otherwise, let’s give people what they really want and add Pat Sajak, Vanna White, and a big spinning wheel to entertain people in these affairs.