Why Debates Don’t Matter

MODERATOR: Mr. Honda, can you give us your analysis of the current situation in the Middle East and how you would help bring peace to the region? You have one minute.

(blah, blah, blah)

MODERATOR: Mr. Khanna, you will have a 90-second rebuttal and Mr. Honda will have 30 seconds to respond.

(blah, blah, blah)

Solving the problems of the Middle East in three minutes. How do we judge a debate?

We ask ignorant or disingenuous “undecided” voters who they thought “won.” Usually with such penetrating analysis as, “I don’t think he was talking to me;” or, “He didn’t come across as a guy I could have a beer with.”

Then we ask the spin-doctors to give their analysis. Spoiler alert: Regardless of how the debate went, their candidate “won.”

And finally, this reality show is analyzed by a group of “experts,” who are mostly political hacks with a history of losing campaigns, which is why they are now analysts. Their opinion boils down to something like, “Our instant poll says Honda won because he was more likable and came across as knowledgeable and more experienced. In addition, many folks just didn’t like Ro Khanna’s haircut and thought he could have picked a nicer tie.”

Yes, political debates are part American Idol, part Survivor.

Think about memorable moments of Presidential debates gone-by.

John F. Kennedy looked better on television (thanks to makeup), while Nixon sweated under the lights. Gerald Ford seemed oblivious to the Soviet Union’s influence on Poland. Jimmy Carter asked his daughter Amy about nuclear weapons. There was Walter Mondale’s “where’s the beef?” retort to Gary Hart. Michael Dukakis failed to show any human emotion when asked a death penalty question that invoked his wife as a victim. George H.W. Bush looked at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton. Al Gore won all of the debates against George W. Bush and still had the election stolen by a runaway Supreme Court.

The 100-plus debates in the most recent Republican primary reduced Mitt Romney to a pandering chameleon. Rick Perry’s “whoops” moment showed his lack of knowledge about the current U.S. Cabinet.

It’s all great theatre, but not an ounce of substance is learned about what it takes to be President of the United States.

Real decisions are not made in 60-second sound bites. It’s not a big deal if a person makes a rhetorical mistake in the Oval Office, but look at your watch, take too long of a drink of water, grimace at your opponent—all this somehow tells people about your character and credentials for public office.

Is this how voters should be making decisions?

People watch these debates for the same reason that they sit in the seats most likely to have a clean view of accidents in NASCAR races—it’s the entertainment value and wrecks that sell tickets.

But this is not the best way for the populace to choose a leader, despite media cries to the contrary. The media has the most interest is seeing a train wreck from a candidate. In today’s 24-hour cable news industry they can fill three days with mindless dribble about who looked better on television.

Debates make no difference in campaigns, especially in races where one candidate is so strong, that to share a stage with their opponent is a waste of time for the electorate and themselves. The marginal candidates relish the attention of being seen as an equal, if only for a short period of time. They also gain a forum to spout their tin-hat grievances, conspiracies and simplistic solutions to complex problems facing society.

That’s why strong candidates refuse to debate. It is why Mike Honda will not give Ro Khanna the time of day. It is why Don Rocha doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with Lois Wilco-Owens. And it’s why Zoe Lofgren still likely won’t meet Johnny Lee, even after the election. I know. Johnny who?

And that’s the point.

(Editor's note: Rich Robinson has been a long-time support of Congressman Honda and held a fundraiser on his behalf earlier this year.)

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Sorry, but I have to call BS. The reason strong candidates stay away from debates is all about risk/reward. When you’re ahead just stay the course, don’t mess up and see if your opponent messes up.

    If Honda does agree to a debate it’ll be because things have gotten close. If that happens, I’m sure you’ll claim it isn’t because the race got close. You’ll claim it’s because Honda is a stand up guy.

  2. “And finally, this reality show is analyzed by a group of “experts,” who are mostly political hacks with a history of losing campaigns, which is why they are now analysts.”

    You forgot to mention that they’re ‘consultants’ as well Rich!

  3. Khanna has deep family ties to the most corrupt political party in India, known as Congress Party, a party responsible for blatant corruption and poverty in India. This political party has been found guilty of killing 10,000 Sikhs in a mass genocide. Khanna’s grandfather , Amarnath Vidyalankar, (you can Google this) was closely associated with Indira Gandhi, who was very anti-Sikh and ordered tanks to kill Sikhs in the most holy temple of Sikhism, the Golden Temple. This same brutal dictator that Khanna’s grandfather was close with, quashed democracy in India when she ruled and had her political opponents killed. Khanna has learned the dirty corrupt politics from his family and wants to bring it here to the United States. Khanna has to go. He is a danger to democracy.

    • Obviously you do not know anything about Khanna or Indian politics or history. Khanna’s grandfather was a part of Mahatma Gandhi’s independent movement. Mahatma Ghandhi and Indira Gandhi are two different families.

  4. If debates no longer matter, if the Mercury News no longer thinks covering local elections matter, if candidate web sites contain very little content that matters, the end result is dumb voters living in a city that cannot provide the most basic services to its residents.

  5. Debates are some of the few opportunities that most voters get to actually see and listen to the candidates. I would agree with Herr Robinson that the post debate analyses are pretty silly and shallow but people should make up their own minds about what they learned about the candidates in the debate, not in the “expert” analysis that follows.
    Whether or not one can learn anything from debates is, well, debatable. But a frontrunner declining to debate tells us volumes about his character. Mike Honda’s refusal to debate coupled with the image of him contemptuously yawning at the town hall meeting and pretending to sleep because he didn’t like what his constituent was saying combine to paint a portrait of Mike Honda that could aptly be titled “A Study In Arrogance”.
    Add in the fact that Herr Robinson likes this guy and I’m inspired to cross over to the dark side in the upcoming Congressional election, and cast my vote for Ro Khanna even though he’s got a D after his name.
    Call it a “spite vote”!

  6. People deserve to hear from the candidates. Debates are the cornerstone of any democracy. It is important to make an informed decision.
    Robinson must think voters are bunch of fools. By writing such BS, you are not doing Honda any favor. Ridiculous articles like this will certainly help Ro Khanna make his case. Constituents of Silicon Valley are smart and well informed folks, don’t try to insult their intelligence.

      • You know, he originally lost me at “blah, blah, blah”…and I wish I didn’t come back for a second try…


        Oh, you mean the set up here for his “popular candidate” to try to cover her actions in the near future. Not the first set up we’ve seen from our friend here, surely not the last. They’re doing everything they can to insulate her, especially after the interviews with NBC and Palo Alto Daily. An unchoreographed debate could be devastating to her “popular” position.

        Rich is a funny guy – using SJI to say things like people should vote where ever they want, that campaign laws are absurd and now debates are a waste of time. This guy is single handedly hitting every Democrat stereotype that is sending the right off the handle. I have to admit, it’s people like him — the rules are great for you, for me, just another absurdity — that drove me from party line politics for either party. I get so tired of this dishonest spin with a friendly smile and a slap on the back. I’m a voter, not an idiot, thank you.

  7. I strongly disagree with you Rich. Debates allow us to meet candidates, ask questions, and hear their views straight from the horse’s mouth. The media only reports sensationalism. I don’t believe much of what I read or hear on TV. Face to face meetings and public debates are important to me. I can tell a lot about someone sitting in front of me.

    For me, the problem with televised debates, and those held in our community centers by Neighborhood Associations is that the sponsors of the debate ask questions no one cares about! Public input is discouraged and ignored.

    Also, I felt the D10 Democratic Club meet and greet for the Mayoral candidates I attended was rigged. They were charging $10.00 to cast your vote, and you didn’t have to be a resident of D10 to vote. 90% of those who voted showed up AFTER Supervisor Cortese spoke. They didn’t even have the courtesy to sit and hear what he had to say. Clearly, the D10 vote was stacked in favor of the D10 Democratic President’s favorite candidate, Sam Licarrdo. Further, other candidates for Mayor said they weren’t even invited to speak, but the D10 Democratic President claimed that they refused the invitation they were sent. Who to believe….

    Most importantly, I take serious offense to the way the media and Neighborhood Associations hold meet and greets with candidates because they only allow certain candidates to participate. They ignore candidates who don’t have a lot of money, or high profile supporters. As a voting member of the public, I want to hear from EVERYONE who is running for office, not only the most well funded and endorsed.

    • Appreciate your perspective, but you are making my point. If you want to talk with a candidate one on one–call them. In a local race they will call you back, but the contrived meetings held to promote candidates, whether individual or in “debate” format give you little insight as to how they would be as public officials. I’m all for people meeting the candidates, I’m not for putting them in a reality show type setting and judging them on their one minute soundbite answer to an important question.

      • I think we can agree to disagree Rich. Political consultants are part of the problem, in my humble opinion. Your job is to get rid of the opposition and present your candidate the way they want to be seen and not the way they really are.

        Debates are are vital part of educating ourselves on the issues/candidates. Yes, the way they are done needs to be changed, but to say they aren’t useful is not true~

        • When people hire for employment, they don’t make the applicants debate each other. “Gee, Bob tell us how you are better than Diane”. We put criteria together regarding what we are looking for in the candidate and fill the position with the person who best fits the description. My advice is for voters to do the same. Do you want experience? Will they work for your interests? Why does the person what the job? What are their references?

          The entertainment portion of the job interview is taken out of the equation. It is much more likely you will get a good result if the person you are hiring is focused on how they fit the position, rather than on how they are better than Bob.


          • Rich, now you are proving my point!

            While we may not ask applicants to “debate” one another face to face in front of a perspective employer, they are asked to answer pretty much the same questions that are heard by the person/s hiring them. No one is given a job based solely on their job application! Like audiences watching a debate, FAIR employers look at facial expressions, body language, weigh their answers, AND judge them based on their skills.

            Secondly, many employees are hired because “they know someone” working there, leaving truly skilled/qualified applicants no chance in hell of getting the job, much like candidates for office who are chosen based on endorsements, popularity, time in office, and MONEY.

            You can make any argument you want Rich, but voters who truly do their homework, study the candidate’s history, and take their right to vote seriously, want to see a good debate of the issues.

            I think the biggest problem with what you are saying is that you are underestimating the intelligence of voters like me who do their homework, and remember candidate’s voting history on vital issues. We can spot lies, cover ups, lack of performance by incumbents, better than you give us credit for.

            I like you Rich, and I support some of the stands on issues you take but, many of the candidates you’ve worked for, or presently work for have bad track records.
            My questions to you are, how/why do you chose to work for some of the people you do, and why do you cover up for them when they aren’t integrity ridden?

          • Rich those of us in the know, know what you’re doing here. You’re not ignorant of Kathleens points, you’re too smart for that. Way too smart.

            So stop dismissing her. She’s a voter, a damn influential one at that.

            These aren’t any old jobs. These arespecial jobs. It’s a job that represents a large land area of Santa Clara County. The boss isn’t a single manager, it’s millions of people. These jobs allow the winner to wield vasts amounts of power and influence. You get this.. Your mind is not absent to this fact.

            Forums are courts where public opinion is fairly culled, and not through massive amounts of money poured into advertising. It’s benefit is purely to the voter, and denying the voter forums is denying them a fair race.

  8. A candidate who really has the community’s interest at heart should have no problem having an honest public debate.

  9. I agree with Kathleen’s comments about the value of candidates debating. It provides an opportunity for members of the community to get an idea about who we are. A debate provides education on what the issues are and the candidates. As a voting member of the public, I want to hear from all of the candidates and not just the well funded and highly endorsed. I want the citizens of District 9 to hear from me and get a clear idea of who I am in an honest, un-choreographed debate with Don Rocha.

  10. Just saw this article. What can I say, that picture is worth a thousand words.
    Mike Honda, a very nice guy, but hardly the man capable of leading the charge for our most essential economic component.
    He is already behind the curve and won’t ever be able to catch up.
    A great man for another era.

    But a change is needed. We can’t wait 2 or 4 more years. The world is moving fast.

  11. Mr Robinson, I am appalled at your utter contempt for the voting public. Your comments in your introductory paragraph are of particular note. You conflate the whole point of a debate between candidates. While I will agree that a debate shouldn’t be the criteria by which voters base a decision the exercise still has merit and allows candidates to express their thoughts in an open forum. This is what’s known as “transparency”, which is the whole point to an open republic. Candidates show contempt for that openness when they fail to do so out of some erstwhile belief that their position is so strong there is no need to present their ideas or to have their records challenged. This whole article was a shameful exposition of the extremely dirty business involving political consultants who would advise their clients to “say less”. I respect the fact that you have an opinion on this and your right to express it, but your opinion is dead wrong.

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