Presidential debates command attention even if they are just parallel press conferences, not real debates.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a real debate 150 years ago. They posited, rebutted and pontificated. Modern-day debates just skip to the pontification. They don’t answer questions. Instead, they speak over questions to appease their political base.
When contemporary debates were introduced in the 1960 presidential race, the news media urged candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to question each other, like Lincoln and Douglas. They balked, insisting the questions come from the news media. And thus the softball question was born.
Debate moderators can’t win. Their questions are questioned. When they challenge candidate deflections and dissembling, they are blasted as aggressive. When they throw darts at one candidate and marshmallows at the other, they are lambasted as unfair – or inept. Ask Matt Lauer – he just moderated a candidate forum that was supposed to be a parallel press conference.
Few people think presidential debates determine the outcome of the race. At best, a candidate can make a clever comment that defuses a potential issue. Like Ronald Reagan promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s youthfulness against him. Bingo. The Reagan age issue disappeared as fast as Mondale’s chances to win. Lloyd Bentsen cut Dan Quayle down to size by telling him he was “no John Kennedy.”
At worst, a candidate can make a fatal gaffe, like Gerald Ford insisting there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Luckily, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wasn’t debating when he responded to a question on MSNBC's Morning Joe about how he would handle the conflict in Syria. His clueless answer: “What is Aleppo?"
Debates can underscore candidate tendencies, such as Chris Christie sounding like a prosecutor in a televised courtroom. Or Marco Rubio drinking water and sweating, Bernie Sanders waving his arms and Richard Nixon scowling. Nixon wanted the debate cameras to stay locked on whoever was speaking, not the other candidate’s reaction. He lost that debate and his scowling image became his campaign likeness.
The 2016 presidential candidates broke new ground. The 17-candidate GOP primary required a much larger stage and a lesser-card warm-up debate. The Democratic debate often crept into the policy weeds, requiring viewers to consult a political thesaurus to understand what in the world the candidates were talking about.
The tone of the debates this year has been decidedly uncivil. There was little love lost between Lincoln and Douglas, but they didn’t interrupt each other or hurl insults. That was reserved for the presidential primary debates. Policy discussions were a dreaded distraction. Viewership has never been higher as you pictured people leaning forward in their recliners waiting eagerly for another zinger.
The bellicose theatrics of debates are egged on by social media. Millions of tweets are posted during debates that excoriate the candidates, the moderators and the crowd. The debates have become more like prize fights or celebrity survival races.
The first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is less than two weeks away and anticipation is building, while expectations continue to drop. Clinton reportedly has been boning up for weeks. Trump is expected to wing it. Many assume the debate will feature Trump dodging substance and Clinton wallowing in it.
Harvard history professor Jill Lepore laments the fallen state of modern debates. In a recent article, Lepore quotes Walter Cronkite, “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud our political campaigns have become” as candidates dictate terms that “defy meaningful discourse” and “sabotage the electoral process.”
Like presidential candidates before them, Clinton and Trump have circled each other to ensure the most favorable settings and least objectionable moderators. But Lepore has a plot with a historical precedent.
She suggests channeling Phil Donahue, who in the 1992 Democratic primary in New York introduced Bill Clinton and Jerry brown, then “sat back in his chair and never uttered another word. Under bright lights with no reputation-salvaging escape, Clinton and Brown were forced to address each other for an “unmoderated, uninterrupted” 90 minutes.
Can you imagine Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump asking each other questions and civilly talking about issues for 90 minutes? Interestingly enough, now Trump is also calling for a debate with no moderator. Maybe that's the format we should follow after all.