Why not just call them what they are—candidate cage-fights? After all, they do not comport with any reasonable definition of debating. Well-rehearsed zingers are passed off as debating points. Gotcha accusations and denunciations score points in the absence of rational discourse, and slick verbal legerdemain is valued as the highest coin in the realm. Nonsense often prevails and rational, thoughtful discussion is rarely a component of today’s political debates. With only 75 seconds allowed for response to questions and 45 seconds allowed for rebuttal, the audience has little opportunity to judge much other than well-honed glibness.
Presidential debate, that is, debate between the actual presidential candidates rather than debates between candidates for the party’s nomination fare much better. I remember as I presume some of our readers may also remember, the first-ever televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. I was a 22-year-old, Washington political junkie, and my wife and I watched the debate on our gigantic Admiral 16-inch television set, in full, radiant black and white (when rabbit ears were properly adjusted). Kennedy, it seemed to us, clobbered Nixon. Kennedy looked relaxed and tanned, at least next to Nixon. Almost everyone agreed, Kennedy had won, at least almost everyone agreed who watched the debate on television. Interestingly, millions of Americans who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won.
Unlike the current nominating brawls that are passed off as debates, Nixon and Kennedy did seriously discuss issues, and they didn’t engage in well-rehearsed applause-line cues to energize their supporters in the audience, because there were no supporters in the audience. Nixon never debated again on television after the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and neither did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, sixteen years passed before Presidential candidates were willing to debate again.
Now, it’s all showmanship. Debates are rehearsed like Broadway show performances. Lines are carefully honed, not for substance, but for effect. Complex issues are reduced to ear-candy simplicity. “We’re going to pay for healthcare-for-all by taxing Wall Street speculation,” (thank you, Bernie Sanders). “My healthcare plan will work because everyone hates their private health insurance,” (thank you, Elizabeth Warren). “Can you trust someone who doesn’t even know the name of the President of Mexico?” (thank you, Pete Buttigieg).”I can get it done because, here’s the deal, the fact of the matter is, number one, I’m the only one up here who’s done it,” (guess who).
Quips or humorous jabs that compliment a candidate’s standing and record are valuable devices in a debate as when John McCain was asked whether he would support a Museum commemorating Woodstock. He replied that he wasn’t well informed on the subject as he was “tied up at the time” (he was referring to his time as a prisoner of war in Hanoi).
Unlike old fashioned cream and milk, quality doesn’t rise to the top in today’s presidential debates. But a good gotcha moment does. Elizabeth Warren eviscerated Mike Bloomberg over the fact that his company has entered into a number of Non-Disclosure Agreements with women who complained about his company being a hostile workplace for women, and in some instances that he himself has made remarks that would be a political career killer for anyone, it seems, but Donald J. Trump. Bloomberg has since agreed to release three women from their Non-Disclosure Agreements whose complaints were about his comments rather than those of other employees in his company. His alleged chauvinistic behavior and crude language may, indeed, be fatal to his political aspirations. Bloomberg, has, however, liberally promoted women to high positions in his company, his political administrations and campaigns, and his charitable foundation. Notwithstanding that his alleged offensive remarks and his stop-and-frisk policing policy could be a political career killer, he was an uncommonly effective Mayor, and he has won both the support and praise of many black leaders and activists. He is also among the most generous philanthropists in the nation, and has, specifically, supported funding for the economically disadvantaged, for better gun control, and for climate change initiatives. That having been said, he still may be toast—more a victim of the debate’s focus on his past verbal indiscretions than his record as a public servant and as a businessman.
Sadly, nominating debates do not serve as a way of judging national or international leadership capability or decision-making judgment. These debates, too often, simply reward gift-of-gab, cutting rejoinders and smooth and glib responses. They give little insight into judgment, decision-making skill and/or meaningful knowledge or historical perspective. They are often as much a killing ground as an elevating opportunity.