Should We Cancel Presidential Debates?

Robert Brooks Contributor
Should We Cancel Presidential Debates?
Read Time: approx. 2:45

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Should We Cancel Presidential Debates? Last week the University of Notre Dame withdrew from hosting the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden due to concerns related to the coronavirus. The event has been moved to Ohio instead, where Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic will co-host the greatly anticipated affair on September 29. Should the United States even have Presidential Debates? Let’s take a look at what both sides are saying:

On the LeftElizabeth Drew of the New York Times says we should “scrap the Presidential debates.” Drew begins by saying that “the debates have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership. In fact, one could argue that they reward precisely the opposite of what we want in a president. When we were serious about the presidency, we wanted intelligence, thoughtfulness, knowledge, empathy and, to be sure, likability. It should also go without saying, dignity. Yet the debates play an outsize role in campaigns and weigh more heavily on the verdict than their true value deserves.” Drew believes that “Over time, the debates [have come] to resemble professional wrestling matches [where] Points go to snappy comebacks and one-liners. Witty remarks draw laughs from the audience and get repeated for days and remembered for years.” Drew says her argument “isn’t written out of any concern that Donald Trump will prevail over Joe Biden in the debates; Mr. Biden has done just fine in a long string of such contests. The point is that ‘winning’ a debate, however assessed, should be irrelevant, as are the debates themselves.” Mrs. Drew’s colleague at the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman admits, however, that he “worries about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump [and that Biden] should do it only under two conditions. First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018… And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.” Friedman argues that “Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?”

On the RightPeter Lucas of the Boston Herald says that “If President Trump wants to debate Joe Biden he will have to break into Biden’s basement.” Lucas writes that “It is becoming increasingly clear to his handlers, the media and the public that Trump would demolish Biden in a single one-on-one debate, let alone the three that have been agreed upon. Biden can barely make sense speaking in a controlled situation with a couple of teleprompters in front of him. Facing Trump one on one in a 90-minute televised debate would be throwing him to the wolves. That is why Trump-hating newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have begun running columns questioning the importance of debates and whether they should be held at all. This is the start of a movement to ditch the debates because Biden supporters know they are too much for Biden to handle, both mentally and physically.” Tucker Carlson of Fox News takes it one step further. According to Carlson, the idea that Biden might skip the debates sums up the worldview espoused by his supporters on the left. “When you criticize them, they won’t engage with you. They don’t bother to rebut your point. They attack you,” he said. Carlson noted that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is the most prominent media voice to espouse this plan, and suggested that Biden and his campaign could well take Friedman’s advice. “Imagine Biden spending six hours on stage with Donald Trump trading jabs on live television,” Carlson asked his audience. “Oh, he can’t do that. So he’s not going to do that. Instead, they’re going to keep Joe Biden hidden behind a curtain … It’s all pretty shocking if you think about it.”

Flag This: The first presidential debate to be shown on television took place between John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, the vice president of the United States. The two presidential hopefuls met in a Chicago studio to discuss US domestic matters. Interestingly enough, “Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television,” according to Mrs. Drew of the New York Times. Although Nixon performed better in the subsequent debates, History points out that “less than three weeks later, on November 8, Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, surpassing by a fraction the 49.6 percent received by his Republican opponent.” Kennedy would of course go on to serve as President until 1963 whereas Nixon made his way west to try his luck in the race for governor of California. Although Nixon won the Republican nomination, he ultimately lost the election, but didn’t throw-in the towel in just yet. In fact, “Nixon returned to the national stage in 1968 in a successful bid for the presidency. Like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon declined to debate his opponent in the 1968 presidential campaign. Televised presidential debates returned in 1976, and have been held in every presidential campaign since.” Our country is addicted to “hot takes” and “zingers” which have become even more popular and potent with social media. Now, anyone can slice and dice a video clip of one of these “gotcha” moments, racking up millions of views. Sometimes they can even be funny, like this one from the 2016 debate. And don’t forget the presidential debate also gave us Ken Bone. Zooming out, presidential debates are gold mines for media companies, as CNBC’s Michelle Castillo notes. In 2016, 106 million people tuned into a Monday night debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 30-second spots for the Trump, Clinton debate soared to $300,000 four years ago. Thanks to live-streaming which increases availability, these rates will likely be higher this year. In conclusion, there is precisely a snowball’s chance in hell that debates ever get cancelled in the United States so mark your calendars for September 29, 2020.

Bonus Content for our History Buffs: Besides being the first election to host a televised presidential debate, the 1960 contest was the first election in which fifty states participated and the last in which the District of Columbia did not. It was also the first election in which an incumbent president was ineligible to run for a third term because of the term limits established by the 22nd Amendment. It is also the last election where the losing candidate won Ohio.