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Democrats’ debates will pin down Clinton

The Democrats have announced they will sponsor six presidential nomination debates, and Hillary Clinton rapidly signaled her intention to participate.

Nomination debates (unlike those during the general election) can affect the outcomes of primaries — just ask Rick Perry. We aren’t only talking about collapses. A good performance can cause a polling surge, and lesser-known contenders need a shot of good publicity at some point, even if they have won support in the invisible primary. For any of that to make a difference, however, it has to be a competitive race.

From what we know so far, it would take something far more substantial than a few debates to reopen the battle for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Yet Clinton’s performance in the debates will count in a different and important way.

Set aside the primaries. Think about the debates as part of the process of representation in a democracy.

People who run for office make promises: They signal who they will be and how they will act if elected. Not only do politicians want to keep the pledges they have made on specific policies. They try to be generally in sync with who they were on the campaign trail too, as political scientist Richard Fenno found in his research on Congress. So a candidate who runs as a partisan will try to govern as a partisan. A candidate who runs as a conservative will govern as a conservative. A candidate who runs as a member of an ethnic group will, if elected, emphasize group identity.

Even if new issues arise out of the blue (and they always will), the president will in effect ask herself: What would the version of me from the campaign do about this? How will I be able to explain what I do now in terms of who I was back then?

Moreover, the promises that count the most are likely the ones made in the candidates’ high-profile appearances. For presidential nominees, the biggest such events are convention acceptance speeches and the general-election debates in the fall. But before that, nomination debates are as high profile as it gets.

Thinking of democracy in terms of representation is different from the focus on accountability. Representation involves the politician: what she vows to do, how she governs with those promises in mind, how she explains her actions to constituents in light of those original pledges. It’s part of a continuing relationship with voters, a bond that can develop over time as the politician earns her constituents’ trust.

Accountability, on the other hand, refers to voters’ decisions on how well a politician has done in office and what they do to hold him or her responsible for results. It’s what people think democracy is, but it doesn’t capture how democracy really works.

Individual elected officials can only rarely deliver specific results that voters identify as the politician’s responsibility. Even presidents can’t just decide, in a system of separated institutions sharing power, to carry out some policy voters will like, let alone decide to have an economic boom or a foreign-policy success.

And voters don’t pay enough attention to politics to know which officials are responsible for what policy. They are prone to do irrational things such as punishing incumbents for bad weather, shark attacks and losses by local sports teams.

So expecting voters to reward or punish politicians for what they’ve done will rarely work. Yes, there are baseline incentives: Presidents don’t want to lose wars or start recessions. But that’s about all.

Representation, by contrast, gives politicians the realistic goal of building a strong relationship with their constituents. It provides the democracy that accountability can’t — as long as politicians try to be good representatives. And we have plenty of evidence that they do.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.

© 2015, Bloomberg News