Presidential Debates Favor Squabbles over Substance
February 2, 2016
Any claim that Trump won Thursday’s debate without even attending it should make us question our debate process. The debates should be a means to gauge the strength of a candidate’s stances on policy. From the very beginning, the debates, particularly the GOP debates, have merely been platforms for candidates to garner attention by spouting insults and stirring up drama.
CNN’s countless movie-trailer debate promos portray debates more like sporting events than policy discussions. The ads make the debates out to be attention-grabbing spectacles rather than informative discussions. Many of the debates have followed the basic formula of getting candidate A to attack candidate B and cue the ensuing chaos. Questions from the last Republican debate, and almost every other preceding it, featured moderators goading the candidates into attacking each other. The first three of CNN Politics’ highlights for the first Democratic debate were attempts to get the other candidates to attack Clinton. The candidates should be able to attack each other, and criticisms of each other’s ideas are essential to having a good presidential debate. However, the excessive showmanship in the debates have forced policy discussions to take a backseat as candidates try to throw the best zinger against one another.
The circus-like nature of the debates is not without its consequences. The candidates fail to inform voters and are allowed to push policies without substantial challenge. Last fall, Ben Carson captured headlines by pulling ahead in polls after supposedly winning the recent debates. Yet his own policy advisors called him out for not understanding key policy points. The early debates were unable to show the infeasibility of his policy proposals, while a six-minute interview on Marketplace did. The moderators have allowed candidates to spout inaccuracies unchallenged. When the moderators challenged candidates to prove the viability of their plans during the CNBC debate, the candidates whined that the debate was unfair.
The debates that followed lacked any kind of substantive challenge to the candidates, though the CNBC debate showed serious concern with the candidates’ proposals. On the Democratic side, the debates have been more focused on policy. However, the DNC has scheduled the debates for the worst possible times—Saturday nights, mostly. Those that care enough to sacrifice a Saturday night for a debate are likely already fanatics, and thus less likely to change their already-developed viewpoints, regardless of how good the debate is. If few voters see it, it does little to affect the conversation and ultimately remains unhelpful.
Debates are paramount for parsing through this year’s muddled presidential field. They must make the candidates prove their worth and expose their shortcomings. Only through vigorous and substantive debate can we gain the information necessary to make informed decisions.
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Email Shiva Darshan at [email protected]