Here’s a Thought: Have Presidential Candidates Debate Serious Issues

The first thing to be said about the “presidential debate” on September 29 is that there was no Presidential Debate on September 29. We don’t have Presidential Debates in the United States any more and haven’t for years. We have TV quiz shows of a sort that are demeaning to any serious candidate, who is forced to put up with the more or less uninformed preening of news performers with no persuasive credentials for questioning much of anyone. Thoughtful discussions, according to the reigning conventional wisdom, make for “bad television,” meaning lower ratings, meaning less income, so the TV industry that exists only because it uses public airwaves avoids substantive, reliable discussion at the expense of the public good. This sham political theatre is all the result of the 1987 takeover of the debate franchise by the country’s two major parties under the guise of the Potemkin leadership of the Commission on Presidential Debates. But that’s a long, sordid story for another day. It’s enough for now to see how calamitously the process has devolved.

The TV show starring Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Chris Wallace was an out-of-control mud fight from the start and never got better. We had orange-faced Trump blustering and acting “strong.” We had pale-faced Biden speaking meekly and trying to act “reasonable.” And we had Wallace, apparently surprised by the play, caught in an untenable position of being expected to control the top two contenders for “leader of the free world.” Realistically, it’s a wonder anything coherent at all crept out of that 90-minute fiasco, not that much did. Do we have any clearer understanding of the candidates’ true intentions with regard to health care, race relations, police violence, poverty, or climate change, among other major issues? I don’t think so.

The intellectual barrenness of the event can also be measured by what was omitted, such as our participation in a genocidal war or our criminal treatment of immigrants.

Since March 2015, the US has supported Saudi Arabia and its allies in their unmitigated bombing of Yemen, killing civilians with disregard for the laws of war and creating the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis. Worthy of mention in a US Presidential TV show? No.

For most of the past decade, the US government has visited cruelties and horrors upon immigrants along our southern border – men, women, and especially children fleeing frighteningly violent conditions in their home countries that the US was instrumental in creating in the first place. We’ve known for years that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is particularly cruel to children, even denying girls sanitary products for their menstrual periods. Now we’re learning that ICE has been carrying out US policy of forcibly sterilizing immigrant women against their will. Forced sterilization is what the Nazis did. Forced sterilization is what the US did in the early 20th century. Forced sterilization is a crime against humanity. Isn’t it worth a mention in a US Presidential TV show? No.

For all that Chris Wallace floundered and failed to raise important issues, it’s really not up to the moderator to make the candidates perform. Trump and Biden both claim to be worthy of being President, so it’s up to them to demonstrate their worth. Trump performed predictably, consistent with past performance going back years. Biden and his handlers could and should have known Trump’s capabilities and prepared to meet them effectively. Did Biden demonstrate the kind of strength we want in a President facing an obnoxious foreign leader? Not so much.

Some say the September 29 performance was “unlike anything we have seen before.” That’s nonsense. If you haven’t seen it before, then you haven’t been looking. When Trump was allowed to prowl the stage behind Hillary Clinton and no one even made an effort to challenge him, we knew he was capable of doing whatever he felt like. He might as well have grabbed her pussy – the theatrical effect was the same. Maybe then she would have reacted.

American debates have not always been like carnival sideshows. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 offer a stark contrast to the clownery of our time. Abraham Lincoln was challenging Stephen Douglas for his seat in the US Senate. They agreed to hold seven joint debates in different Illinois counties. The format was simple: one candidate would speak for 60 minutes, the other would speak for 90 minutes, then the first would close for 30 minutes. They alternated going first at different locations. There was no moderator. The candidates performed unmediated. These debates were immensely popular and received national coverage. Douglas won re-election, but the debates helped Lincoln win the Presidency two years later. The main subject of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery, the most pressing issue facing the nation.

It is all but impossible to imagine such a series of debates today, on race relations or any other crucial issue. What politician can we imagine speaking coherently for an hour or ninety minutes? There are a few. But what audience can we imagine sitting attentively for three hours? That is a sad measure of American culture today, where too much of the public is distracted by shiny irrelevancies while the party in power loots the government and rescinds the laws that protect us.

Serious as the coronavirus pandemic is, it’s also been the source of shiny irrelevancies of all kinds. Currently, there are those who claim that Trump is not sick and his Covid-19 hospitalization is an elaborate hoax. On the other side, the candidate who challenged Nancy Pelosi for her House seat and came out with 2% of the vote has now claimed that Democrats gave Trump the virus. DeAnna Lorraine, a QAnon-promoting Infowars personality, tweeted on October 2:

I’m just going to say what we’re all thinking. Trump was fine until the debate, where they set up microphones & podiums for him. Incubation period is usually 2-3 days. He tests positive a couple of days after the debate. I put nothing past the left. NOTHING.

Does anyone else find it odd that no prominent Democrats have had the virus but the list of Republicans goes on and on?

That’s a thought to feed paranoia, but there may be another explanation. Lorraine herself elsewhere offered a possible reason for Republican vulnerability:

Biblically, God does not want us wearing masks… If you have a mask on, it means you actually don’t trust God. You don’t have faith.

Given the level and variety of discourse in this country, even at its best, one may be tempted just to trust God. But it’s probably still a good idea to wear a mask around others, especially around all those unmasked believers. And it’s also probably a good idea to vote, based on your best guess of what’s real at the moment.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.