If you are older than 50, you’ll probably remember the line, “I served with Jack Kennedy; I worked with Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was friend of mine; Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” People went absolutely crazy when Senator Lloyd Bentsen delivered that line to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate. It was considered the greatest mic drop moment in modern political debates. But what does uttering a line like that have to do with governing our nation? Absolutely nothing. That line was well scripted by Senator Bentsen’s handlers. It was practiced and rehearsed over and over again by Lloyd Bentsen, and the only challenge was finding a place to fit it into the debate. It had nothing to do with who was more capable, more worthy or more deserving of becoming Vice President. But ever since that line was delivered, candidates have been searching to deliver their own “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line. Unfortunately, too often the American voting public gets caught up and influenced by charged but irrelevant moments like that.
Watching the GOP debate last night, I couldn’t help but wonder, at what point are we going to stop doing these so-called “debates”? Last night’s GOP “debate” was not a debate, it was eight people yelling, talking over each other, trying to get their scripted soundbites in, trying to humiliate their opponent, searching for ways to deliver their well-scripted “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line as if they just made it up off the cuff. Last night was embarrassing. It was embarrassing for the GOP. It was embarrassing for the country. That debate had nothing to do with finding out who is the best candidate to become President of the United States. Even when the candidates did state their policy positions, it showed nothing about how they would govern. Their stated policy positions are a result of polling and focus groups designed to find out which positions, which words, which talking points resonates best with the most voters. They all have managers, handlers, speech writers who tell them what to say, how to say it, when to say it, in order to attract the most voters.
But once they get the job, all of that goes out the window. They govern anyway they want or more accurately, they govern how their deep pocket campaign donors want them to govern which is opposite of what most people want. The middle class makes up 50% of the American people. You would think that the politicians would be falling all over themselves to please the largest segment of the voting population and put in policies that strengthen the middle class. In debates like last night or on the campaign trail, politicians give lip service to the middle class, but have no intention of helping the middle class. Most politicians in Washington introduce and vote for legislation that is hostile to the middle class, and that’s why the middle class has shrunk from 61% in the 1970s to 50% today. That shows how much our politicians work to bolster the middle class. Why do you think Oliver Anthony’s song, Rich Men North of Richmond, is resonating throughout the country? Somebody is actually feeling the pain of the middle class brought on by the very people who will be vying for the Presidency over the next 15 month.
Last night’s debate resembled more of a reality TV show than a serious Presidential debate. It would be like having a juggling competition to see who’s going to perform your open-heart surgery. It is completely meaningless. Completely irrelevant. The skills displayed in a debate have nothing to do with how the candidate is going to govern. Nobody is ever held accountable to what they say in a debate compared to what they did in office. Once in office, if the elected politician does the complete opposite of everything that they said in the debate – which is the norm – he doesn’t get thrown out of office. So, what is said in these debates mean absolutely nothing. They are events put on by the media to make a lot of advertising money because millions of people are gullible enough to watch, and then they are forgotten within 48 hours. If you are determining who you’re voting for based on one of these political debates, you’re not doing enough research on the candidates to make a well-informed decision. These debates represent everything that is wrong with American politics.
But aren’t debates part of American political history? Yes, debates like The Lincoln-Douglas debates which went on all day, where the debaters were allowed to speak for 45 minutes to an hour on one specific issue, so they could flesh out their entire thoughts and ideas on that subject. They weren’t asked to distill their beliefs on some of the most vital and consequential issues of our time into a 30 second soundbite in order to get their mic drop moment. That is absurd. It is the Instagraming of politics.
After the debate is over, the talking heads and political pundits on cable TV drone on and on and on mischaracterizing each candidates’ points in the debates as if we are not smart to understand what was said on that stage. And the casual viewer gets a complete misrepresentation of what each candidate actually claims to stand for. The pundits gladly play the role of Kingmaker by stating clearly who they thought won the debate and who lost which creates another false and inconsequential layer between the voter and the candidate.
So, when you’re scratching your head wondering how our country could be $31.5 trillion in debt and have not fired every politician who got us there, you don’t have to look any further than what went on last night in Milwaukee. When a debate like that is used to help determine who becomes the leader of our country, it is inevitable that we would be staring at a $31.5 trillion National debt because we are using all the wrong criteria to make that decision.
We got the first glimpse of the absurdity of political debates 60 years ago. The Presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in 1960 was one of the first televised political debates in our history. The polling after the debate showed that the people who listened to the debate on the radio, believed that Richard Nixon won the debate, and the people who watched the debate on TV believed that John F. Kennedy had won. Those polls showed that how you look, how you present yourself, what’s your image is, is more important than the substance of your words. And that preference of image over substance has taken over American politics. When that is the case, a $31.5 trillion National debt is the only logical result because it apparently doesn’t matter to the American voter if you caused the country to be underwater in debt, if you look the right way, say the right things, have the right image, or can come up with a mic drop moment, the people will vote for you.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.