Debates! Ugh, who needs them?

Well, we Israelis do, actually

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama face off during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on October 16 (photo credit: AP/David Goldman)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and US President Barack Obama face off during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on October 16 (photo credit: AP/David Goldman)

Well, it’s just ridiculous, isn’t it? Demeaning. Risible. Absurd.

Two grown men squaring off against each other as though they were boxers. Preening, pulling themselves up to full height, strutting back and forth, wagging fingers.

There were moments when I thought one of them was going to take a swing at the other.

And they don’t just do it once. Or twice. But three times! And their deputies get in on the act too.

What kind of a way is that to decide the leadership of the free world?

The US presidency is about a carefully conceived ideology, a nuanced world view. It’s about vision. About prioritizing. It’s about building a smart, realistic, competent staff, and a hierarchy that can gradually, painstakingly implement a vast, complex agenda, and switch mode instantly, smoothly to manage crises.

The measure of a president, or a would-be president, does not lie in his capacity to rehearse a sound-bite, or to remember the name of Mr. Joe and Mrs. Joanna Public when they’ve stammered their way through a question. “Ooh, I’ve forgotten what I was going to ask! Hang on a minute, I’ve got it written down…”

We cannot realistically gauge which candidate will be more effective at running the planet’s only superpower by assessing their posture, where they put their hands when they’re waiting on their stools, the cut of their spouse’s dress, the tenacity with which they complain to the moderator about unequal time allocation, or the degree to which they can explain complex economic policies in layperson’s terms.

And heaven forbid that the crucial floating vote would be swayed by a momentary hesitation, a statistic falsely cited, a single intemperate response.

The sweat on a candidate’s lip? (Nixon, 1960.) The capacity to unfurl a humorous defense of one’s advanced age? (Reagan, 1984.) That factors such as these have helped determine who gets to run America? Like I said, ridiculous. Honestly, what could be worse?

Oh, I know: No debates.

No opportunity for the public to gain some sense of how those who would lead them can perform under relatively unpredictable circumstances in the full public glare. No chance to hear the would-be firsts-among-equals explain their positions, defend their policies, fend off criticisms from their political opponents and from the electorate they are supposed to be selflessly serving.

No unscripted occasion, pushing them outside their usual rigidly controlled environment, on which to see our let-it-be-me leaders’ capacity for thinking on their feet. No moment to watch them grappling with the unexpected, overcoming discomfort, maintaining their equilibrium. No forum requiring them to articulate their strategies and their tactics more effectively than their rivals on behalf of a nation facing innumerable challenges to its legitimacy, agonizing security and military dilemmas, and all manner of internal religious and ethnic rifts.

No brief, humbling encounter, when the man who would be king is reminded that he is nothing of the kind, and faces a public demanding answers, and a moderator who tells him when he can and can’t talk.

Really, you’ve got to shake your head in despair at those laughable US presidential face-offs, that silly, sensationalist means of homing in on the choice of a leader via the kind of superficial, fleeting process more customarily associated with eliminating contestants on cheap, meaningless reality shows.

Despair, that is, until you draw the comparison with Israel — where our political leaders have gradually eliminated high-risk press conferences in favor of declarations to camera, and generally reserve their interviews for the more sycophantic and unthreatening media outlets. Where no one forces them out of their comfort zone, except our enemies. And where our prime minister — love him or loathe him, just don’t expect to make a genuinely informed choice about what exactly he’ll be doing in our name — will cruise through this political campaign, just like all his recent predecessors did, without a debate in sight. And barely a squeak of objection.

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