A few minutes into the first presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Clinton did the very thing that I cringe at and hoped she would not do. She went after Trump on a point about jobs and their alleged loss to China, Mexico, and just about everywhere else you can think of but here. If she hadn’t gone on the attack, Trump sooner or later would have.
They were off to the races after that. The debate then quickly turned into a football scrub match with fans of the teams cheering lustily when the home team scores; meaning their candidate getting a one-up, dig, hit, or smirky wise crack about their opponent. By then a debate that presents a real, in-depth, laying out of the candidate’s position on a crucial issue has completely gone off the rails. For the audience, the moderator, the millions that tune in, the debate is now a travelling circus filled with a mad grab for showy sound bites, and hit points against each other, with all those watching and waiting with baited anticipation and merriment for that moment.
Even in the best of circumstances, presidential debates are little more than high camp reality TV since it’s been long established that most voters say they don’t learn much from the debates, and that they aren’t going to change who they’re going to vote for anyway. If they planned to vote for Clinton before she pursed her lips to take a whack at Trump, nothing she could say or do would change that. If they planned to vote for Trump before he pursed his lips to take a whack at Clinton, nothing he could say or do on the big stage would change that. Party affiliation, long-standing political preferences, personal beliefs and values insure that.
The problem is it’s those whacks that Clinton and Trump spent most of their time honing to get that precious cheer and got cha’ thrill from their partisans. This is no accident. This sad, sorry state of what presidential debates have been reduced too goes beyond just a pander to political thrill-seeking, negativism, and of course, personal attack attack attack. It’s built-in to the whole deeply flawed, scripted, and rigidly manipulated structure of presidential debates. The debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is just another way of saying the Republican and Democratic Party, and a stellar crew of their top gun, senior party officials. The Commission’s Board of Directors is composed of the nation’s big names financial and political elites. The debate sponsors have been some of the top corporations such as At&T, Ford, J.P. Morgan and other financial bigwigs.
The two parties have a monumental and rigidly vested interest in making sure that their party standard bearers don’t stray one sentence from well-rehearsed, and ad nausea repeated talking points, sound bites, and hit their opponent in the kisser one-liners. The candidates, to no surprise, know the rules of engagement and adhere to them. Yes, Trump may bloviate here and there, and even seem to go off the deep end, but it’s still well-within the prescribed bounds of pat one-liners, and regurgitating his worn talking points. The format doesn’t allow for anything else.
There’s no lengthy response time to permit Trump or Clinton to flesh out their position on say health care, or job creation, as opposed to simply attacking in a one-liner each other’s one-liner on these issues. They have no chance to ask each other open-ended questions on their position on the issues. There’s no aggressive push to get the candidates to plunge to the depth on a specific policy issue.
That takes time, and it’s time the candidates don’t have because that time has been cut in half to two minutes from the more than four minutes’ presidential candidates had in debates in years past to respond to a question. An attempt was made to partially address this gaping flaw by dividing the debates into several 15-minute blocks to permit the candidates a response and follow-up debate on an issue. This did nothing to force candidates to move a sentence or an extra thought from their script.
Countless proposals have been made to get a hard-hitting moderator seasoned on the issues, or turn the questioning over to a panel of experts from academia, labor, the arts, and business, or even having the questions come from a nationwide pool of questions drawn up by citizens themselves. This way you’d likely get questions on topics that almost never get asked such as combatting poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, the failed drug war, what kinds of judges to pick for the federal courts and Supreme Court, student debt, what to do about “Too Big to Fail” banks, the why and wherefore of drone attacks, the Palestinian question, specific plans to deal with climate change, and a myriad of other issues either ignored, or given short shrift.
These proposals to give the American people real, free-wheeling, issue driven presidential debates, void of personal digs, canned spiels, and punchy one-liners have gone nowhere. Until they do I won’t be watching anymore presidential debates.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of How “President” Trump will Govern, (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.