The Dread of Debates
Why I, along with many voters, feel a sense of dread going into the final presidential debate.
For the past couple of days now, I’ve been going back and forth about whether I’m going to even bother watching the final debate. After the unmitigated disaster of the first one and the debacle of the second (which ended up with Trump and Biden having dueling town halls on opposing networks), I’m not feeling particularly hopeful about the substance of a final showdown. At the same time, as someone who writes about politics and really values being part of the conversation, I feel obligated to do so, if for no other reason than that I have FOMO when it comes to politics.
I won’t deny, though, that I’m absolutely dreading it.
I’ve struggled over the past week to define to myself exactly why it is that I feel this way, since it’s such a pivotal part of the political and cultural landscape. Part of it is certainly trauma from 2016, when I saw the political press bend itself into impossible intellectual knots in order to make Trump fit into their idea of what a candidate should be like, even if that made them look like absolute ignoramuses. Who could ever forget the time that Chuck Todd infamously noted that Hillary Clinton was “overprepared,” as if that were a bad thing to have in a candidate running for the most important job in the nation (and, for that matter, the world).
And it’s not as if this tendency has abated. Right before the first debate between Trump and Biden, Ryan Lizza made the (astoundingly specious) argument in Politico that Trump was actually a good debater, both against his fellow Republicans and against Clinton. Even from Politico, which has become somewhat infamous for its willingness to parrot Trump talking points, this revisionism is jaw-droppingly brazen. Who could ever forget the way that he bullied and interrupted and made a general sham of the Republican debates, or the way that he interrupted and loomed over Hillary Clinton? These aren’t the marks of a good debater, no matter how much the political press might like to wish that reality into being. They are, instead, the marks of a bully and a brute, someone whose overwhelming desire to dominate and destroy means that he will obliterate any norms that he finds to his liking. That isn’t winning the game; that’s throwing over the table on which it’s played.
Then, of course, there was the media response to the first debate between Biden and Trump. The press practically fell over itself trying to paint both candidates in an equally unflattering light (which I wrote about here). The both-sides-are-at-fault framework that still dominates so much political journalism was in full view for everyone to see, and while I was utterly unsurprised by it, I was still frustrated. It was pretty clear that Trump was the loser in the debate, precisely because he was, unsurprisingly, unable to contain his worst impulses when it comes to being on stage with someone that opposes him. It’s a pity that many news outlets simply can’t bring themselves to tell the truth rather than relying on outdated frameworks.
Is it any wonder that I’m dreading the last one? Even though evidence suggests that debates, no matter how incendiary, rarely move the needle when it comes to election outcomes, that hasn’t stopped many outlets from prognosticating, wondering whether this might, finally, be the moment when Trump becomes presidential (that’s a moving goalpost if I’ve ever seen one).
What’s more, I know that the entire news cycle tomorrow will be dominated by discussion of what Biden did wrong, all in an effort to prove to some mythical voter that outlets like Politico and The Washington Post are unbiased. There’ll be the usual effort to showcase the flaws of both candidates, as if we aren’t literally teetering on the precipice of fascism, as if the president hasn’t ruled over a catastrophic failure of a response to a pandemic (to say nothing of the fact that the location of the parents of over 400 children separated from their parents at the border remains unknown). I have no doubt that all of that will be buried under a blizzard of both-sides-ism.
Frankly, at this stage, I think that debates a relic of a bygone era that can be safely dispensed with. If someone wants to get a sense of what a candidate stands for, it’s much more useful to just go to their campaign website. For example, if you go to the Joe Biden website, you’ll see a panoply of policy proposals for everything from the future of American manufacturing to the lives of Black Americans to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. If you go to the Trump campaign website, by contrast, you’ll find little or nothing of true substance, other than a tissue-thin proclamation of his supposed accomplishments (and the RNC platform is barely more substantive). No matter how good the questioner may be — and it does seem likely that Kristen Welker will be a good one — viewers simply can’t a sufficiently nuanced and substantive idea of what a candidate’s policies are going be in the debate format (particularly when one candidate is determined to bulldoze the entire process).
If you want to see how a candidate behaves when under pressure, town halls are much more effective in that regard. At the Biden town hall, for example, voters got to see a man motivated by empathy and dignity, who took voters’ concerns seriously and genuinely engaged with their queries. Even if he didn’t answer every question to everyone’s satisfaction, he showed that he has the temperament to be a strong leader. Trump’s questioning by Samantha Guthrie, however, once again highlighted his refusal to take accountability for anything and his tendency to buckle under even the barest bit of scrutiny (cue his whining about it being unfair).
Unfortunately, it seems as if debates are going to be with us for at least some time to come, despite all of the calls for ending them. That doesn’t mean that we in the public have to be excited about them.