Debates have stopped truly exploring the issues
Two candidates step into the Octagon. One wins, one loses, say the pundits. But in reality the only losers in this fight are the American people.
The Vice Presidential debate on Oct. 4 showcased the failures of debates to provide substantive information to the electorate. This debate managed to be even less informative than the previous one, which featured Donald Drumpf’s professional meltdown, in which he ranted he has “a winning temperament” and told Hillary Clinton that she has been fighting ISIS her entire adult life, despite ISIS’s 1999 creation.
We learned next to nothing about the VP candidates. If the point of the Vice Presidential debate was to get to know the VP candidates and their positions and abilities, then this debate was an unqualified disaster. (It’s not just the debate; The entire election has been an unqualified disaster.) But in the VP debate, a complete lack of fact checking allowed the soft spoken candidate — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — to answer every question and challenge with a lie and be called the winner. Of course, if the moderator Elaine Quijano had actually asked about the VP candidates at all, then perhaps people might have had a very different idea of who won.
Broad questions and arbitrary speaking allotments were major problems that all four of the debates suffered. The first presidential debate was, out of the four we’ve had, the most coherent and on topic. While the two-minute speaking rule was established for the purpose of preventing the candidates from going on and on forever, it is generally ineffective. This rule prevents them from being able to answer questions on complicated issues with any substantive information, and so they are forced to recite some general pre-planned speech about that topic without actually answering the question.
At one point in the first debate, moderator Lester Holt asked, “Our institutions are under cyber attack, and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is, who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?” This question cannot be answered this in two minutes, and so the debate quickly devolved into an argument about Russia,with Trump accusing Clinton of rigging the election, which has now happened in every debate between them. Furthermore, the two minutes is loosely enforced and in the first debate especially did nothing to control the debate, which primarily consisted of the two candidates trying to talk over each other and Lester Holt as he attempted to get back on topic. If the rule is just going to be ignored anyway, then perhaps the best thing to do is to do away with it and replace it with a model that will give candidates a chance to actually answer a question or explain a policy.
Of course, if the moderators refuse to enforce the answering of the questions or the accuracy of the answers, than the problem of the two minutes becomes irrelevant. During the first debate, Trump, upon being asked about how he plans to put money into the pockets of American workers — which itself is extremely broad topic — simply went into a preplanned tirade about jobs going to Mexico and China.
As long as the candidates vaguely talk about the subject at hand, and the moderators refuse to call them on blatant lies. When asked about taxes he vaguely mentioned them before talking about how Clinton has a plan to fight ISIS on her website and how General MacArthur would feel about that, which is extremely far off any coherent topic.
More recently in the second debate, when asked if he ever groped women, Trump responded, after long equivocations, “No, I have not…Other nations are taking our jobs and they’re taking our wealth.” This is such a non-sequitur, that it is baffling that this was allowed to slide. He also, in a discussion about his “Groping women” tapes, somehow managed to get onto the topic of telling Clinton she would be in jail if he were President. The final debate managed the rather amazing feat of staying more on topic than the rest. Yet even so, it featured Trump saying that no one respects women more than he does, just minutes before he interrupted Clinton to remark that she was “a nasty woman,” as well as the bizarre claim that “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother, just prior to the birth of the baby.” Apparently, Trump confused abortion and cesarean sections.
Of course, keeping the candidates on topic and focussed is all well and good, but if the questions don’t support this, those things don’t really matter. The questions were not tailored for the purpose of a constructive conversation, but rather for a back and forth reminiscent of a boxing match, and the entire affair is marketed as such. Leading up to the debates, news organizations posted advertisements featuring the candidates facing each other across the screen, with captions like “The Gloves Are Off.” This is typical of most of the news organizations that promoted the debates, suggesting that for them this is much more about entertainment and ratings than it is about actually informing the electorate. They advertise a big, monumental showdown to their viewers, and so that is what they have to provide. As such, many of the questions that the candidates are asked have much more to do with the latest scandals than with their proposed policy and ideologies.
During the first debate, Trump once again raised the point of Hillary’s emails and then Lester Holt asked her about them. The Bush White House lost over 22 million emails and none of these people berating Clinton made any sort of a fuss, this entire issue is irrelevant, and opening it up to discussion only gives it credence. Furthermore, in the third debate, a question was asked about taxes that included the phrase “fair share,” which was clearly an invitation for Trump and Clinton to start another back and forth about Trump’s taxes, which is one of the popular discussion points in the media. While this is a somewhat significant issue, it is another example of the debates focussing on what is popular in the media, not what is important about the candidates’ positions. In the final debate, the issue of emails was once again raised, but nothing about climate change was mentioned, even though many see this as an important issue. Furthermore, some of the questions were just as irresponsible as the answers, such as Chris Wallace’s question in the final debate about partial-birth abortion, which is actually not a classification.
The only redeeming moment of the third Presidential debate was when Wallace asked Trump about his position on election rigging and whether he would respect the democratic election, to which he responded that he’d keep viewers in suspense. At the end of every debate, the media spends hours and days arguing about who had won, rather than discussing the implications of what they said and the policy that they proposed. This makes sense. If the debate is marketed as some sort of massive end-all be-all of fights, and it progresses as such, then there must have to be a winner.
The problem specific to the Vice Presidential debates was the complete failure to provide information about the VP candidates and their views. The one thing that the three presidential debates have been able to show is the characters of the two candidates, even if they have failed to bring out a decent policy discussion. The VP debate however, had none of that. At the start of the third debate moderator Elaine Quijano quoted Lloyd Bensten, saying, “The vice presidential debate was not about the qualifications for the vice presidency, but about how if tragedy should occur, the vice president has to step in without any margin for error.” She followed up with a question central to the debate: “What about your qualities, your skills, and your temperament equip you to step into that role at a moment’s notice?” Despite this fair question, this debate also did not get to the real issues.
The questions once again focussed on the current controversies, and the old scandals that are no longer applicable. Mike Pence spent most of the night either denying that Trump said all of the things that he said, or attacking Hillary on every conflict in the world right now. Kaine for his part spent most of the night defending Clinton’s record, attacking Trump’s business acumen, or simply quoting what Trump actually said. We learned almost nothing about the candidates, except that both are religious and that Pence is slightly calmer.
As John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, we cannot ignore the possibility that the winner in November will serve a single term and then be succeeded by her or his VP: “When viewers tune in to the debate on Tuesday night, they should be asking whether Kaine and Pence have what it takes to be President.” This debate was a shambles. There were too many lies to even begin to fact check, and most of the debate was not about the people actually debating, or their beliefs, or even their past political history and positions. We already know about Clinton and Trump, none of that is new, and having two people go on TV and be their apologists is what they have surrogates for.
As tempting as it is, with the candidates that we have, to simply go on and on about their scandals, gaffes, and controversies, this simply will not do. The purpose of the debates must be more than to boost ratings and sell commercials. The reason we have a free press is to inform the electorate, but that is not what our free press is doing, they are simply using already divisive politics to boost ratings. Debates need to keep the candidates in check and on the issues, so that people can figure out where they stand and if they can defend their positions in an intellectual debate, not a shouting match. The only thing that the Presidential debates managed to do is to showcase characters of the candidates, the VP debate couldn’t even manage that. We cannot have a president who thinks that every issue can be solved with insults, shouting, and say “wrong.” Debates need to have some sort of substantive content, or we should do away with them.
Otto Bonk is a third-year politics major who thinks that those running for office never made it to civics class in the first place. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.