Cancel all the debates, now
COVID-19 and Donald Trump’s bullying behavior provide the excuse to do what should have been done already: cancel the presidential and vice presidential debates.
The Trump-Biden debate was one of the low, degrading moments in the history of American politics. That several people there, including the president, came down with the virus underscores the perils of forums today.
The Tuesday debacle only dramatized that these debates have outlived any usefulness. Even before Trump’s blustery and boorish performance they offered little value to voters other than as a spectator sport.
With the premium on cheap cracks, clever cliches and one-liners, these debates, as columnist George Will wrote, “test next to nothing that is germane to the performance of Presidential duties.”
To be sure, Trump deserves much blame for one of the ugliest and dispiriting nights in American politics.
The sponsors of this debacle — the Commission on Presidential Debates — demonstrated as well that it’s not up to the task. There were ground rules agreed upon by the participants; yet, Trump — from the get-go — violated those rules, interrupting and bellowing during his opponent’s time as a clear strategy to unnerve Joe Biden.
The response, after no more than15 minutes, should have been to stop the debate and tell both sides if either flagrantly violated the rules again, their microphones would be cut off. The apologists for this god-awful event say that would have been against the rules. If one candidate blatantly violates the rules, you either take action or the rules don’t matter. That the planners didn’t anticipate this — who was surprised by Trump’s behavior, really? — made them enablers.
The production choices, a split screen, also played to Trump’s transgressions. “The producers and the debate commission pandered with the side by side shots which they believed were more ‘juicy’ and confrontational,” George Stevens, a legendary film and documentary producer, told me. “That enabled Trump to make faces and, since he was sharing the screen, his interruptions may have seemed less than outrageous.” If presented more professionally, the president’s outbursts may have sounded more like the crazy uncle shouting from the closet.
This was just the culmination. Princeton political scientist Julian Zelizer told me, “These debates have been deteriorating, but this was like watching an institution collapse.”
Supporters claim without this 33-year-old commission, voters will be denied any direct exchanges. I doubt that. This year there will be hundreds of debates between senate, gubernatorial, house and state and local candidates — few, if any, under the auspices of any commission, and some much better than the presidential and vice presidential forums. The one constructive national debate might have been the town hall with voters asking questions.
For more than four decades political debates have been ingrained in the system — and they will continue to be.
There is a month to go before what really may be the most critical election of our lifetime. Voters have a pretty good sense of the candidates and the states. Subsequent debates would be a distraction.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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