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What's (still) Wrong with Debates - Reaction to the Third Presidential Debate

There was a huge response to my last post on the presidential debates, so I thought that the topic might it might be worth revisiting after last night's debate. (Note: No actual dead horses were beaten in the development of this essay.  If you haven't read "What's Wrong With Presidential Debates" yet, please do so before reading any further.)   The full debate video is below if you haven't seen it.

I thought that we saw a pretty entertaining foreign policy debate last night - one that was worth missing most of a lopsided baseball playoff and Monday Night Football game (though if the St. Louis Cardinals were going to play a terrible Game 7, it would have been nice if they did it against the Nationals in the first round). In the debate, there was much more agreement on foreign policy than other matters, although the candidates tried to pivot back to domestic policies (and their differences) every chance that they had.  The seated setup probably helped with the relative lack of physical aggression in this debate, but it didn't prevent several of the "zingers" that America seems to love to hate.

I'm still not convinced that these three Presidential debates gave us enough of the "right" information. For those who are political die-hards, the debates offered little new information, but a chance to speculate on the candidates' strategies and the impacts on undecided voters in battleground states. For many engaged voters who tuned in every week, the debates have been a frustrating experience - I have seen many on my twitter and facebook feeds complain about the repetition from the candidates, the surface-level responses, and the antagonistic tone. For the casual/undecided voter who has just tuned in for the first time, the debate may have given a glimpse of the candidates, but I'm not sure if they have enough to understand who they are. As expected, we didn't get the full story on any one issue last night. With the debates now over, there may not be much more for the average undecided voter to use to make their decision.

In one internet planning forum, a reader didn't seem convinced that "issues of place" are relevant for candidates to answer - in that person's words, candidates "tend to have college educations in law and business" and the issues that relate to impacts on place fall under "geography" - a separate subject. My argument is based on the fact that every policy has an impact, and those impacts are not evenly distributed. To give an example from last night's debate, one of the most memorable moments for me was the exchange on the Navy (begins at the 0:40:40 mark of the video above), a topic that they briefly focused on during the discussion on military spending.

As a political die-hard, I have heard the candidates' positions and talking points on this before, and was anticipating the criticism and comeback that was to come. As a policy person, I wanted more. This was a foreign policy debate, and the Navy's readiness is clearly a defense issue, but there are other factors to this decision. Eisenhower wasn't ever in a presidential debate, but he discussed the influence of the "military industrial complex" in 1961 - part of that relationship is the reality that defense policy has a local economic impact and voters and local elected officials consider that impact.

A shift in funding or philosophy toward shipbuilding policy for the Navy could have a great impact on the economy of the Tidewater region of Virginia and other places. Instead of two minutes of sound bites from each candidate on the topic of the Navy and how many ships we need (with a zinger or two mixed in to get everyone's attention) I would have loved to see the next question - what's behind those answers? We would need a discussion that shows consideration of how this policy would impact the economic development of that region (and others) in addition to the Navy's readiness, the role of a modern navy, what kind of ships we should be building, et cetera.

We would then see how the candidates weighed those (and other) factors before establishing their positions. I would not give all of those factors equal weight, and I believe that each of the candidates would give those factors different weights and they may disagree on the actual impacts in the first place.

To me, it's not a geography question, but a policy development question. I want to see where a candidate's priorities are and what that person considered before making her or his policy position. When I propose federal, state or local livable communities policies to AARP's National Policy Council for inclusion in AARP's Policy Book, you can be sure that I have researched, weighed and considered every factor and impact that I can fathom. The AARP Livable Community Policy Principles were written to make clear the goals and considerations that AARP believes are important to creating a livable community. Those principles can be used to understand current AARP policies, but can also be applied to situations and policy proposals that arise in the near future.

I expect that a Presidential candidate has done no less - at minimum, someone on their staff should have gone through this exercise and there should be a clear logic behind each position. It is then the candidate's job to make it clear to voters that he or she understands that logic and can explain those considerations to the general public. Obviously, this can't be done for every issue, but I would love to see it done for at least one topic before the election. Bring on a fourth debate!

What did you think about last night's debate? Would you watch the candidates have a no-holds-barred 90-minute debate to get to the bottom of an issue? Comments are welcome below and on twitter and facebook.


  1. Great blog! I really love how it's easy on my eyes as well as the facts are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made.

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  3. Thanks for the compliment and question. You can select "Follow this blog by email" on the right side of the page and you will be sent a notification whenever there is a new post. You can also sign to follow on twiter, pinterest, google+ and facebook. I post on those sites when I have something new to share


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