Debate commission fumbles its way into becoming the news
The officiating crew of any sports event is doing its job best when it is invisible to the participants and the fans. Referees fear becoming factors in the outcome of the game. So it should be for the Commission on Presidential Debates. This commission, however, has fumbled each of the political footballs thrown its way this campaign season. Sadly, it is now a news maker itself, rather than serving as an apparatus for the presidential candidates themselves to make the news.
Now the second debate has been cancelled, depriving the electorate of another opportunity to see the candidates interact. Granted, the first presidential debate wasn’t great political rhetoric, and the vice presidential clash had its flaws as well. The candidates and their campaigns shoulder much of the responsibility for this failure of civic deliberation. But the debate commission’s management whiffs — and its determination to insert itself into the trajectory of the presidential race — disrupted an already messy situation.
It’s now laughable to look back at the two debates of 2020 and recall how moderators hectored President Trump and Vice President Pence about not following the agreed-upon rules. Avoiding the rules was considered bad — until the commission itself decided to break its own agreed-upon schedule by unilaterally announcing the second presidential debate would be virtual. The commission just had to know that decision would send Trump off the rails, his protests essentially cancelling the event. The virtual format was developed under the cover of “safety” for the candidates, as though no other sensible options were available, including the plexiglass props displayed during the VP debate.
The cancellation of the second debate did accomplish one objective of the commission: It took C-SPAN host Steve Scully out of the line of fire. Scully was to be the moderator for the cancelled debate, even though questions had arisen about his impartiality. Scully was an intern for Democrat nominee Joe Biden and later worked on the staff of Democrat kingpin Ted Kennedy. Not to mention his questionable activity on Twitter. The commission must not have vetted Scully before naming him a moderator. There were surely many other potential moderators, including from C-SPAN, who wouldn’t have brought such baggage.
The commission could help future presidential debates by removing journalists from the platform altogether. Journalists always enter presidential forums as pseudo-debaters, looking for gotcha moments as they might do during a one-on-one interview. Note that Chris Wallace went all Candy Crowley in the first debate, personally jousting with Trump about climate change for three minutes while Biden took a breather and watched approvingly. The “debates” are not really debates, but essentially dueling press conferences with a journalist/moderator playing a leading provocateur role.
Journalists want to hog the spotlight because they are out to promote both their personal brands and the brands of their news organizations. Further, journalists have no corner on wisdom or on knowledge of current events, let alone the qualities that make for a good president. Surely, there are notable figures from the public service, legal or academic worlds who could serve the moderator role with insight and probity.
The presidential debate that did happen will not go down in the rhetorical hall of fame, but it did provide a sobering reflection of the conditions on the ground in America today. Trump’s interruptions and Biden’s name-calling were disappointing, to say the least, but the combatants were vicariously living out the societal clashes America is currently suffering. And face it: The commission yearns for and organizes these “debates” precisely to create political rumbles. Yet, in the aftermath of the brawl, the commission acted all appalled and pondered cutting microphones and other changes to the playing field.
If the commission truly wanted to turn down the temperature of presidential debates, it would remove them from television.
Of course, that would diminish the excitement, drama and fanfare the commission craves. Televised debates force political rhetoric into the emotional medium that is television. Television is designed for catchy sound bites, staging and visuals. To channel the media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, it is clear that measured political policy analysis doesn’t happen on television.
At this point, it makes no sense for the commission to try to shoehorn another presidential debate into the campaign season. Any other debate would now be viewed as helping one candidate or the other, which puts the commission again squarely into the position of being a newsmaker influencing the election.
Besides, millions of Americans have already cast their votes, something the commission apparently didn’t think about when back-loading the original debate schedule so late into the campaign.
Now is the time for the Commission on Presidential Debates to take a knee, end this season, and ponder what role, if any, it can or should play in 2024.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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