Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The first presidential debate, a raucous display of decidedly “unpresidential” behavior, called forth the usual bromides and analyses. Hands were wrung over the threat to our “democracy” and the loss of “civility,” complaints that were missing when in 2014 Joe Biden bullied Paul Ryan. Many pundits on both sides confessed their depression over the spectacle. As usual, most voters didn’t have their minds changed by this glorified reality-television show.
Maybe it is time to just ditch the CPD sponsored debates.
Televised presidential debates are an artefact of the television age. As a creation of an entertainment medium, the debates have never been about informed questions, answers, and rebuttals over policies or governing philosophies. They are political ads and gotcha tournaments, with the audience keeping score over who makes a gaffe, misspeaks, blatantly lies, avoids the question, or personally attacks his opponent. Like professional wrestling, each contestant has his or her fan base whose minds will not be changed, and whose estimation of points scored will be mostly subjective.
And don’t forget, superficial appearances are very important too. Remember poor Dick Nixon, whose five o’clock shadow, translucent skin, and lack of cosmetic skills may have lost him the presidential debate in 1960? I recall a poll (later challenged) that found radio listeners thought Nixon won, but television viewers thought JFK did. Even if the poll was flawed, there’s no question that appearance counts. Remember Hillary complaining about Trump “looming” over her during their debate? And of course, good looks and physical presence, as filtered through a television camera, add another subjective and irrelevant element to the spectacle.
More revealing is the fact that the “moderators,” as the hosts of these shows are called, nearly always come from television news shows. That is, from the ranks of professional readers of other people’s words. I can’t figure out how a job based on such an ability, a pleasing voice and demeanor, and the knack for not looking like an oaf on television, equips anybody to be a critical analyst of the policy prescriptions of professional politicians.
At any rate, pols don’t win office because of their acumen about the Earned Income Tax Credit or the intricacies of Medicare billing, or knowing who the Defense Minister of Kazakhstan is. They win because people like them and they promise to serve the people’s interests and passions. Television, at least any show that most people will watch, is not friendly to talking-head wonkery. But it loves two nationally known candidates from different parties going head-to-head in a genteel form of blood-sport.
And, as Tuesday’s debate illustrated, the moderators are invariably on the side of the Democrat, which makes sense given that journalism is dominated by leftists. Chris Wallace, a swamp creature born and bred, obviously dislikes Trump, and took every opportunity to throw Biden a lifeline by changing the subject when Joe got in trouble. Wallace repeated partisan lies, such as the allegation that Trump said Nazis and white supremacists were “very fine people,” a canard that the full context of his comments has long ago exposed. Wallace seldom followed up on questions to Biden that he dodged, such as his avoidance of public support for law enforcement, his endorsement of the Green New Deal, his refusal specifically to condemn violence, and his adoption of Bernie Sanders’s “manifesto,” a socialist blueprint for transforming America into a hypertrophied Cuba. Indeed, Wallace’s performance was so inept that radio host Hugh Hewitt quipped that the only winner of the debate was Candy Crowley, who no longer is the worst presidential debate moderator in history.
Finally, why does the Commission on Presidential Debates get to run the show and choose the moderators, who then get to choose the topics? The CPD was created in 1987 by the Republican and Democrat Parties to be their cat’s-paw. (Overstated? Steve Scully, the moderator for the next debate, was Joe Biden’s intern.) It’s funded by some private donations, but mainly by foundations and corporations––you know, lobbyists. In other words, the CPD is an organ of the bipartisan technocratic elite, especially the Democrat division, and the way debates are run reflect the interests of the political guild. That fact goes a long way to explaining why the moderators, questions, and management of the debate reflect the political establishment and DNC talking points. And it shows why Donald Trump has to debate two opponents: The Democrat candidate and the moderator.
The debates, then, are an expression of the underlying political consensus that politicians are about coming up with policies that “solve problems” by consulting the best technical expertise and “science.” But politics is about power: the power to choose the aims and goods for the state as decided by the people. It is not about engineering or science, but about philosophy, core beliefs, and principles. And in the case of the United States, our government was designed on the assumption that the corruption and abuse of power is the greatest threat to political liberty. This belief in turn is founded on the certainty that human nature is flawed, and often motivated not by the good for all but by factional “passions and interests,” as James Madison called them.
How about a presidential debate over those foundational beliefs? After all, that the protection of political freedom, the diversity of the citizenry reflected in the 50 sovereign states, and the unalienable rights of individuals are the most important issues that we need to hear presidential candidates discuss.
But the establishment doesn’t want to hear that conversation, because it would expose the hidden consensus in favor of a technocratic, redistributionist Leviathan state that has weakened the Constitution and increased the power of the federal government to a level that would horrify the Founders. It is a government that encroaches on the freedom and autonomy of the states, individuals, and civil society with an intrusive, extensive regulatory regime that, as we in California are witnessing in real time, appropriates wealth and limits freedom without delivering the promised improvements––the boons that are supposed to make that sacrifice worth it. Indeed, California’s technocratic regime has made things worse, turning a region rich in resources into a premodern world of segregated rich and poor, with levels of squalor, social degeneration, and failure to deliver services like electricity and water more typical of the Third World.
The takeover of the Democrat party by the left has made this discussion even more important. The Sanders-AOC wing, and their BLM shock-troops, want to exploit the current pandemic, lock-downs, and riots to even further dismantle the Constitution’s checks on power that protect our freedom. A legitimate debate would zero in on the ideas that justify that transformation, or that argue against it.
The current format is not designed to do that, but to provide entertainment and in-kind political contributions, not to mention enriching television networks and media apparatchiks. That being the case, we need to ditch the current presidential debate system. Leave it up to the two parties to sponsor debates, and get rid of the moderators who decide for 130 million voters which issues are important. And, as David Harsanyi has written, “let them fight”:
Right now, the biggest problem with the debates is their antiquated, heavily moderated, strictly time-constrained format, which incentivizes candidates to give the least forthcoming answers imaginable. Let the debates run for three hours — or for however long it takes. Stop providing candidates with the topics of discussion beforehand. Allow them to go at it, rather than reining them in every time they accidentally stray into some useful back-and-forth. If a candidate wants to be overly aggressive and interrupt his opponent, let him. He’s the one risking being seen as a bully by voters.
Traditional debating rules, developed over hundreds of years, are effective when an issue is being argued over by two cerebral combatants, but it doesn’t work in a wide-ranging conversation between two partisans. Institutional media types like to romanticize presidential debates, but Reagan’s best moments were quips, Obama’s were sermons, and Nixon lost because he didn’t have make-up on. These things have been tedious exercises in showmanship, gotcha zingers, and stale talking points.
Exactly. Let the parties sponsor the debate, and pick the moderators and topics. Then turn the candidates loose. At least then we can drop all the verbal perfume about “norms” and “decorum” that tries to hide the stench of raw power-hunger. For the fact is, since ancient Athens a democratic election is like a bout in Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves.”