It seems like it has been a long time since political debates have been about ideas. True, even in the supposedly halcyon days of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas fighting for a Senate seat, formats have been loose and the language often looser. Exchanges of personal insults are not remotely the invention of Donald Trump and Joseph Biden.
But even by the lax standards of the modern incarnation, presidential debates have been growing increasing acrimonious and disorderly. The candidates’ objective nowadays clearly has little to do with persuading voters through superior ideas and elocution and much to do with winning applause through bravado and bluster.
By that measure, Donald Trump has few equals, as he demonstrated in Tuesday night’s fiasco. Biden was not without his moments of juvenile outburst, but it was indisputably the president who was not about to let this event descend into a civil exchange of engaging ideas.
When flustered moderator Chris Wallace at last pleaded with him Tuesday, "The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions," the president’s response showed little interest in service to the country. It was the wounded lament of the chastened fourth-grader, the whine of the schoolyard bully: "Ask him, too."
This is what our debates have come to, so the natural question is where do we go from here? Do such experiences have legitimate value in helping voters make an informed choice? Can they?
They can, to be sure. But if that is to happen, it will require at least three significant changes — a refusal by voters to be swayed by empty displays of arrogance, a commitment from candidates to mature and respectful decorum and a mute button allowing moderators to silence candidates who won’t obey the rules.
On Wednesday, there were hints that the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan body that oversees planning and production of the programs, might initiate the latter device as a means of installing what it called in a statement "additional structure" to the debates.
Whatever the setting and whoever the questioner, not much is going to change if candidates insist on cultivating rudeness and voters let them. In such circumstances, we have only that little button for some hope of meaningful "structure" — and it, let’s acknowledge, won’t stop candidates who insist on yelling to interfere with their opponent or who whine about the moderator’s judgments in cutting them off.
Which brings us back around to the beginning, the ultimate focus of all this rancor and melodrama — us, the voters. Let’s hope the time never comes when we throw up our hands and abandon debates altogether. There is real value in seeing how well candidates advance and defend their ideas in direct give-and-take with their opponents. But to assure that, it’s critical that we make clear not just what we expect of our debates but what we expect of our candidates.
Those expectations must show up in polls, social media and, of course, vote totals. These are the prime components of a solution in the long term.
But for the immediate moment, let’s also get that little button and keep it close at hand.
via Daily Herald
October 1, 2020 at 09:01AM