“Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates”, says yesterday’s New York Times editorial making the dramatic claim these contests between candidates for the most powerful office in the world are just not needed anymore. They contend they are more a waste of everyone’s time than anything else. Why? As the Times puts it, “they’ve become unrevealing quip contests.” They ask, “When,” after all, “is a president called upon to put down an interlocutor, be it a member of Congress or a foreign leader?”
At least, the Times was as quick as it was clear to let us know why they are not calling for an end to Presidential debates. It’s not about Vice President Biden’s mental acuity of late.
This, by the way, 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.
Nor is their call about lowering expectations, as any reader would seem to conclude when reading this statement, “The point is that ‘winning’ a debate, however assessed, should be irrelevant, as are the debates themselves.”
Yes, our Presidential debates can and have devolved into circuses where journalists are trigger-finger quick to declare a winner before the stage has even cleared based on nothing more than a single, quippy one-liner that didn’t really say much of anything at all. But they are indeed important events and essential experiences for voters and the nation.
Just recall any Presidential debate you’ve ever watched. The journalists and television news organizations who show them certainly tend to take them extremely seriously with all the pomp and pageantry that goes into their set up as they did for the first Clinton/Trump debate in 2016. The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School explains the media usually see them as “a national event of great importance – kind of Super Bowl of American democracy.”
The scholars at the Shorenstein Center explain that viewers see presidential debates differently than media professionals, but with equal importance, “Though reporters often look for a winner and loser, viewers experience the debate differently, making two simultaneous judgments: One, whether or not the candidate seems ‘big enough’ to be president; and two, whether one of the candidates is a better choice.”
The Pew Research Center consistently finds that a strong majority of voters regularly say that presidential debates are very helpful and instructive when considering who to vote for. This is strongly backed up by sheer ratings. Debates are wildly popular. The New York Times itself reported earlier this year that the democratic presidential candidate debates in February “smashed a ratings record” with one drawing more viewers than this year’s Grammy and Golden Globe award shows. Nielsen reported that those 19 million-plus viewers stayed tuned through both hours of the back and forth between candidates. And that was just the crowd running to become the Democrats frontperson. The debates in the last election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were the most viewed in our nation’s history.
“It will be the most watched event in human history,” former Clinton adviser Paul Begala told the New Yorker of the first Clinton/Trump debate on September 26, 2016. “Bigger than the moon landing, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the latest royal wedding!” Begala was precisely correct in his prediction. Politico explained the first Clinton/Trump debate had a viewership on par with Super Bowl broadcasts and the finales of M.A.S.H., Cheers and Seinfeld.
For the voters who watch them, clearly in massive numbers, the debates serve a significant purpose. Regardless of the political positioning of the candidates, their one-up-manship between each other, their command (or lack thereof) of the facts and minutia or world events, presidential debates allow the American people to size up their nation’s potential executive leader to see for themselves if he or she is up for the job in the midst of a high-pressure and commanding situation. That is an important aspect of our democratic process. Celebrated reporter and political commentator Walter Lippman observed in the 1960s, “The TV debate was a bold innovation which is bound to be carried forward into future campaigns, and could not now be abandoned.” Lippmann was correct on both accounts.
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