RNC presidential debate claims are baseless – but may help get rid of a real problem


February 19, 2020. It’s a night that is still replaying almost frame by frame in my mind. My former longtime boss, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, was taking the stage for his first presidential debate to take on other leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. But I was nervous.

A few days earlier, I had warned in an opinion piece for CNN that Bloomberg needed to avoid the debate stage at all costs. As someone who had been by his side from the very birth of his foray into politics — his 2001 mayoral bid — I knew that no matter how much debate prep he had under his belt, Bloomberg was going to having his clock cleaned by the longtime professional politicians he faced on this stage.

The current pattern of US presidential debates does indeed favor a certain type of personality – sharp rhetorical and verbal skills or a knack for delivering hard-hitting lines.

And that is precisely what happened. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was relentless in her verbal assault on Bloomberg that night, frequently leaving the former mayor caught off guard and struggling to defend himself.

It was a brutal punch. And that ultimately marked the beginning of the end of a campaign that by then had been rising rapidly in the polls, backed by nearly $1 billion in spending and a platform boasting an impressive track record of public and private sector leadership and a balanced, centrist and no-nonsense approach to the presidency – something that would have marked a 180-degree reversal from the boom years under Donald Trump.

I found myself thinking back to this turn of events when the Republican National Committee announced that it was considering changing its rules to bar GOP presidential candidates from participating in debates organized by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD. .

Bloomberg was participating in a debate hosted by the Democratic National Committee — intramural matters that apparently would not be affected by the cancellation of the CPD-sponsored debates. But if the end result of the RNC’s slashing is that the institution of the presidential debate is coming to an end, I’d say good riddance. And with no clear indication of how the RNC would replace committee debates, it looks like that could be a real possibility.

In a letter to the commission, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote that “[s]As long as the CPD appears determined to block the meaningful reforms needed to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and non-partisan actor, the RNC will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that future Republican presidential candidates are offered this opportunity elsewhere.

I do not accept the RNC’s specious arguments that the non-partisan commission has established rules that tend to favor Democratic candidates, but I strongly believe that the theatrics, pageantry and hype that have become the stage for political debate modern national mock our political treat.

A nationally televised debate should be a serious affair that highlights the political differences of opposing candidates and gives the public a chance to see what kind of leaders they might elect. Instead, in recent years these debates have often sounded closer to the verbal equivalent of an MMA fight.

Who can forget Trump’s ominous march behind Hillary Clinton during a mayoral debate in 2016? It was a bizarre incident that was so outrageous that some media outlets called it a “scorched earth” affair. “Saturday Night Live” parody the incident with Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) teetering on Clinton (played by Kate McKinnon) while music and sound effects reminiscent of the movie “Jaws” played offstage.

While we in the media love the fireworks and intrigue that accompanies these momentous events, they do our country and our democratic process a disservice. The histrionics of these exaggerated contests cause many voters to simply lose interest; worse still, for many others it leads to disengagement, turning them completely away from politics and civic life in general.

Also – and this is something I’ve often thought about in recent election cycles – I’m not sure what a good debater does to be a good president. The first formal debate between then-President Trump and then-candidate Joe Biden in September 2020 was widely decried by the public and the media. The essence of the evening was perhaps best captured in a New York Times headline summarizing the evening:With Cross Talk, Lies and Mockery, Trump tramples decorum in debate with Biden.”

The skills required to “perform” well on the debate stage have minimal effect on performance as a leader of the free world. It’s not like the winner of the presidential election goes on to debate other world leaders in televised affairs. We don’t see Biden and Vladimir Putin, for example, debating in front of global live viewers.

On the contrary, most critical policy debates and decisions in the Oval Office take place behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy away from public view. The ability to think quickly on one’s feet and be witty might be a form of intelligence, but no president makes decisions on the fly without consulting top experts and lawmakers in real life.

The current pattern of US presidential debates does indeed favor a certain type of personality – sharp rhetorical and verbal skills or a knack for delivering hard-hitting lines. Why do we remember virtually meaningless but poignant barbs delivered on the debate stage (who can forget Lloyd Bentsen’s famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy” riposte to Dan Quayle during the vice presidential debate of 1988?), but we often forget the context of the policy in question?

Some might be surprised to learn that the presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon that roughly follows the growth of television broadcasting. Although there have been some precedents Democratic and Republican primary debates, the first official debate between presidential candidates of opposing parties took place in 1960, between Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate.

It’s almost as if we interview our candidates and give them a test that has absolutely no bearing on the position itself.

Many historians cite the theatrics of that first presidential debate — when Nixon’s pale suit and lack of makeup made him look weak and unpresidential — as the turning point in the election, leading to Kennedy’s victory. I’m not saying that Nixon should have been elected president, but neither should he have lost because of his choice of suit color or because her lack of makeup revealed a five o’clock shadow.

It’s almost as if we interview our candidates and give them a test that has absolutely no bearing on the position itself. At best, the prominence given to presidential debates signals to voters that debating prowess is a reasonable indicator of being a good president, though it potentially rules out many perfectly capable but not verbally competent candidates from seeking the highest. depending on the country. At worst, the nationally televised debate circuit provides a platform to promote peddlers and thugs, endowed with the gift of gossip but utterly unfit to take the reins of the world’s sole superpower.

It is time for the presidential debates to come to an end.


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