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Scrap presidential debates — but not this year

The debates simplify, dramatize and canalize all the confusions of politics in a colossal world power into verbal boxing matches.

September 17, 2020

11:36 AM

17 September 2020

11:36 AM

The toughest moment of Joe Biden’s year arrived in May. It was harder than seeing off Bernie Sanders, harder even than picking a VP. Here was the moment that truly tested Biden’s campaigning skills, built up over so many years in public life.

He was trying to address the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Fund when the great test arrived. Loud noises interrupted his Zoom speech. From the green shadows of the Delaware garden behind him: violent quacks, tuneless whines, squalls, bawls and fearsome honks. What was this? A protest? Didn’t they know he’d been a lifeguard at an inner city pool back in 1962?!

Biden continued with his speech… Trump… honk!… was… honk!… hateful, I mean, Orange Man… HONK!… Biden creaked to a stop. He had to address this madness at his back, even before he condemned the madness of this presidency. He paused.

‘You’re going to hear… there’s a pond on the other side of my property here… a lot of Canadian geese… if you hear them honking away… they’re cheering… that’s what they’re about.’ Biden cracked a pixelated smile: job done. Further proof emerged of Joe’s legendary delegating skills — Dr Jill Biden was sent to shoo the geese away.

Yes, that’s as hard as it’s been for Joe this year. President Obama made the primaries easier when he convinced Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete to drop out of the race. Biden’s faced little scrutiny from network anchors. Nobody asks him why he appears, so often, to be reading his talking points from a script. Without breaking a sweat, or even a hipbone, Biden today has been given a 76 percent chance of winning November’s election.

Prominent voices have pleaded with Biden to withdraw from the forthcoming presidential debates. Why risk a good lead? It started in July with Tom Friedman in the New York Times. Apparently, Biden shouldn’t face Trump unless the President agreed to release his tax returns (there’s more chance of Trump turning out to be a passionate Marcel Proust super-fan than that happening). Speaker Nancy Pelosi is anti-debate, as is veteran journo Elizabeth Drew. Bill Kristol posted aloud that there should be three vice presidential debates instead. ‘Whatever you do,’ CNN’s Joe Lockhart, President Clinton’s former press secretary advised Biden, ‘don’t debate’ President Trump.


‘There’s absolutely nothing the left will not do to protect Joe Biden,’ tweeted Donald Trump Jr, America’s most dedicated culture warrior. What a specious argument. It goes like this: Biden’s septuagenarian frailty, which is shared every day with small audiences on the internet, would be displayed in front of a massive national audience during any debate. In the language of numberless YouTube videos, Don Sr would ‘DESTROY’ Biden. Ignore the fact that Biden has been doing political theater like this longer than Bob Dylan’s been touring. Ignore the fact the President has had plenty of his own senior moments recently (apparently rioters have attacked the cops this summer with ‘big bags of soup’). Ignore, finally, the fact that a fair judge would say that Trump managed to lose two out of three debates with Hillary Clinton, herself as charismatic as a well-used emery board. This argument also sets the bar low for Biden. Crucially, like his surprisingly cogent convention speech, it allows him to exceed expectations. Biden is a proud man, fond of boasting about how far he can run, delighted to challenge questioners to push-up contests. He’s vain — like many senators. He wishes he could ‘ take Trump behind the gym’ and slap him up. It would be out of character if he ducked these debates. (Also any candidate following Tom Friedman’s advice at this late stage would automatically deserve to lose an election.)

Oddly enough, four years ago many of the outlets calling for Biden to drop out of these contests were speculating that Trump would do the same thing. Matt Taibbi reminded his readers of this a few days ago:

‘“Will Donald Trump skip the debate with Hillary Clinton?” wondered New York that summer. “Is Donald Trump planning on skipping the presidential debates?” asked the Atlantic. Why might someone so far behind skip debates? Because “he’s not very good at them,” the Washington Post explained, adding Trump won the Republican primary “in spite of his lackluster debate performances”.’

More wishful thinking. Trump didn’t skip the debates, or ever plan to. His ‘lackluster’ performances in the primaries, pyrotechnic displays of contempt, sarcasm, raucous put-downs and relentless sloganeering, set off against pasteboard 2-D cut-outs like Jeb!, were in fact unmissable, first class tragicomedies. Trump, like Biden now, had no desire to be considered a wimp. He’d send Barron to investigate a disappearance on the Wicker Man island before he chickened out of a shouting match.

This week Trump tweeted that he’d happily attend a four-hour debate hosted by Joe Rogan. Taking Trump’s tweets seriously is a bit like basing your financial decision making on the advice of the local haruspex. Still, CNN’s Alice Stewart, a fellow — she modestly reminds her readers — of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, applauds the idea. Why? It would encourage ‘critical thinking’ and help to ‘expand the electorate’.

Meanwhile, out in what we might tentatively call the real world, near-majorities of voters in six swing states think both Trump and Biden are ‘mentally unfit’ to be President. Four in 10 Americans who were eligible to vote in 2016 chose not to. If Did Not Vote was a candidate in that election it would have won a landslide. When these voters look at Trump and Biden, even with the amiable Rogan sitting between them, are their minds going to change?

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Presidential debates simplify, dramatize and canalize all the confusions of politics in a colossal world power into verbal boxing matches. If you think about them for longer than five minutes, you start to wonder what they can possibly tell you about executive leadership. Does anybody remember anything John McCain or Barack Obama said in the 2008 debates? What did Al Gore say about Israel in 2000? The only traces these events leave are insubstantial images, and their only currency is the inane zinger. Like most things on television, presidential debates succeed as entertainment and fail at seriousness.

In 1962, when television was still a novelty, Daniel J. Boorstin wrote a prophetic book called The Image. Boorstin worried that America was about to be inundated — drowned — by unreality. The American Dream would become the American Illusion. ‘We risk being the first people in history,’ he argued, ‘to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so “realistic” that they can live in them.’ Presidential debates would turn politics into a game show, and the presidency into a vehicle for braggarts and charlatans. ‘The great presidents in our history would have done miserably; but our most notorious demagogues would have shone.’ Was Boorstin wrong?

The whole format should be scrapped, not to protect Biden, or because Trump won’t release his tax returns. Then again, one last rambling debate series between these two might be worthwhile. It would be a fitting way to crown what’s being called ‘the dementia election’. Watching the candidates gabble and jaw for a few hours wouldn’t add to America’s vast stock of illusions — it would shatter them.


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