The presidential debate debacle
Unless you’ve been living in an ice cave in Siberia, you’ve heard about the first presidential debate of 2020. Merriam-Webster has put a screen capture of Donald Trump’s scrunched-up, scowling face adjacent to Joe Biden’s too-white fake smile next to the definition of “garbage fire.” It was, in short, a disaster—an opinion that I’d guess is widely held by members of both political parties.
As I cringed through the mudslinging and interjections last Tuesday night, I realized that it’s time for a change. Presidential debates, at least this year, have lost any positive impact they may have once had.
Televised presidential debates had a strong start in 1960, with Nixon and Kennedy bantering back and forth about civil rights and Chinese communism. The two men were composed. They were civil. Since then, the American public has largely viewed debates as a way to get a feel for a candidate’s political stance, as well as watch them think on their feet and respond to pressure. Undecided voters get a chance to see their options in action, and those who may not usually vote can get inspired to cast a ballot.
The downfall of the debates started in earnest in 2016, when Hillary Clinton and Trump batted insults and interruptions back and forth, both amusing and horrifying their audience.
And this year? It’s gotten even worse. The debate didn’t help make up anyone’s mind. In fact, it actually pushed voters away from the whole mess (unless the reason for low voter turnout will be Trump’s expert theory of rampant mail-in ballot fraud).
Additionally, many of the debate topics, carefully posed by moderator Chris Wallace, lead the candidates to either irrelevant tangents (read: Hunter Biden, the flammability of certain trees and who is more knowledgeable about suburbs) or to spew misleading or incorrect information. Not only does the American public not need to hear about the candidates’ family drama, they were also bombarded with blatantly wrong facts about COVID-19, climate change and the economy. It’s easy to make the argument that the debate did more harm than good in terms of informing the public about what’s truly at stake in this election—aside from our collective sanity.
Okay, you might argue that one bad debate doesn’t mean that the entire practice is rotten. However, gone unchecked, the circus put on by Biden and Trump sets the precedent of “anything goes,” for future presidential candidates. Americans are tuning in for the show, not for information—and that’s a mindset that’s difficult to undo, especially if the next few debates go even half as badly as the first one did.
The presidential debate tradition has been nice, but add it to the list of things 2020 has ruined, possibly forever. Even though many may not agree with me now, I’m betting that by the time the final debate rolls around, we’re all going to be channeling Biden, asking the T.V: “Will you shut up, man?” If we really want people to vote (which we do!), we need to cancel the rest of the debates. Instead, let’s just focus on surviving until election day.