Michael Swartz / October 9, 2020

Debating the Debate Changes

The Commission on Presidential Debates made changes that favor Joe Biden.

On Wednesday night, the vice-presidential debate went on as scheduled. Given Vice President Mike Pence’s success in taking down Kamala Harris, and considering the disaster that was the first presidential debate, it’s no wonder that changes are afoot.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is promising to instill “additional structure” via rule changes, such as moderator control of candidates’ microphones, even as the scheduled date for the second debate crept up on the calendar — a debate, it was revealed, being moderated by a former intern for then-Senator Joe Biden.

However, thanks to President Donald Trump’s (apparently successful) battle with the China virus, that town-hall-style debate suddenly morphed into a “virtual” event, a CPD-announced change that prompted President Trump to declare that he’s taking a pass. “The commission changed the debate style and that’s not acceptable to us,” said the president. “I’m not going to do a virtual debate. I’m not going to waste my time.” Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, added the obvious: “A virtual debate is a non-starter and would clearly be a gift to Biden because he would be relying on his teleprompter from his basement bunker.”

There would also be the lag time inherent in such a setup, making the type of back-and-forth where we learn the most about candidates nearly impossible to follow. Biden’s campaign is well known for the technical trainwrecks that seem to plague its virtual town halls, making the chances of a watchable debate slim at best.

Instead, the Trump campaign sought a one-week delay in both the second and third debates, pushing the final meeting to October 29, just five days before the election. That delay may not even be necessary, for the president’s personal physician, Dr. Sean Conley, announced Trump can resume in-person events as soon as tomorrow.

The Biden camp threw cold water on that delay proposal, though. “We set the dates. I’m sticking with the dates. I’m showing up. I’ll be there,” said Biden at a rare campaign stop. “And in fact, if he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine.” Instead, if Joe doesn’t put one of his all-too-frequent “lids” on that day, Biden’s campaign scheduled a solo town hall with ABC News in Philadelphia for October 15, with the friendly moderation of former Clintonista George Stephanopoulos.

With the CPD seemingly set on a virtual event despite the president’s improving health, a widening circle of observers are making the case that the current regimen of presidential debates has outlived its usefulness. “Televised presidential debates are an artifact of the television age,” writes journalist Bruce Thornton. “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.”

The romantic idea of a presidential debate stems back to the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas series of debates held in 1858, when Lincoln was running to oust Douglas from his Senate seat in Illinois. These three-hour affairs were grueling, as the participant opening the debate had 60 minutes to speak before the opponent delivered his 90-minute rebuttal, leaving 30 minutes for the initial speaker to rebut and close his argument. Given Trump’s weakened physical state and Biden’s deteriorating mental state, it’s unlikely either of those prizefighters could finish such a bout today. Such a debate would also take the media prize of being moderator out of the picture, which would likely in this day and age be an instant boost for the Republican candidates who routinely face a tag team between the Democrat candidate and the CPD-selected moderator.

There are other criticisms with the CPD as well, particularly its exclusion of other candidates on the ballot. In this election, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen is on the ballot in all 50 states and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins is on all but a handful. Yet no minor-party candidate has crashed the debate stage since Ross Perot put the Reform Party on the map briefly in the 1990s. That devotion to the duopoly becomes more understandable when we’re reminded that the CPD was created by the GOP and Democrats back in 1987 for the purpose of putting on these spectacles every four years, and it’s not in their interest to allow others to take the stage regardless of the merit of their ideas.

Here in 2020, we live at a time where, like it or not, practically everyone who’s voting has already made up his or her mind. It’s either carry on the many successes of Donald Trump or vote for Joe Biden because “Orange Man Bad.” The only winners of the debate are the spinmeisters and talkingheads who get to have their say for days afterward. The voters are the ones who lose.

Update: Late Friday, the Commission announced the cancellation of the second debate, originally scheduled for October 15.

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