It’s time to kill the presidential debates — they no longer serve their purpose
The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was called “chaotic,” “messy,” or simply the “worst debate ever.” As a response, the Commission on Presidential Debates has promised to make changes to improve future debates. There is nothing to be done, as presidential debates no longer serve their purpose. They should end.
Even before last night’s fiasco, voters indicated in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that the debates won’t sway votes. More than 70 percent of respondents said the debates won’t matter much to their decision making, which included 44 percent who said the debates won’t factor at all into their choice on Election Day.
These so-called debates cannot be redeemed, because they are not debates. Academic debate, which I strongly support, has two debaters arguing for and against a single proposition. Judges determine which debater made the strongest case with logical arguments and strong evidence. The goal of academic debate is to make the debaters smarter.
There is nothing of the sort in presidential debates. Does anyone really believe that Donald Trump has learned anything since he was 21-years old and starting to navigate his real estate career? To be fair, it is unlikely that Joe Biden prepares or participates in political debates for the purpose of learning something new about domestic or foreign policy.
OK, it’s not academic debate. Neither is it the kind of debate that the Commission on Presidential Debates conceptualized when they began and took over the process of running the quadrennial events. Founded by the respective heads of the Democratic and Republican parties in 1987, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, their vision of presidential debates was modeled on the Nixon-Kennedy debates from 1960 and subsequent debates through 1984. Their goal was to create an informed electorate.
Their early efforts were valiant attempts to focus on the policy positions of their respective presidential candidates. The Bush-Dukakis and Clinton-Bush debates were reasonable facsimiles of the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Since 1992, first gradually and now suddenly, the goal of the debates to create an informed electorate has all-but-disappeared. In Tuesday night’s debate, there was no pretense on the part of the candidates for informing the electorate about their respective policy positions. Trump, arguably, has no policy vision and Biden’s is vague.
The Commission wants to add “structures” to the upcoming debates in an attempt to add more substance to the debate. This means two things — a different format and empowering the moderator(s).
The search for the Holy Grail of debate formats has been ongoing since Don Hewitt produced the first Nixon-Kennedy debate. We’ve tried moderated debates, those without a moderator, town hall debates, multi-candidate debates, etc. The issue is not the format of the debate, but simply that the candidates face no consequences for talking over the opponent, not answering the question, or lying in answers. If there is one thing we should have learned over the past four years, it is that no rules or norms will contain Donald Trump.
It is also not a question of the moderator. Chris Wallace is one of the most capable moderators in the business. He is smart, articulate, quick, and possesses a great memory for fact-checking the candidates. In Tuesday’s debate, he tried every trick in the book to keep the debate on the rails from buttering up Trump to cajoling him. Nothing worked. Nothing will work, short of a cattle prod and legal immunity.
Academics yearn for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 19th century. They went around the country arguing about the merits of slavery — a single topic, like academic debates — for hours at a time. There is no return to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It is time to take these modern political events and relegate them to the museums and history books, just like those glorious debates of old. The modern debate is dead.
David McLennan is a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
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