Now that the first of three scheduled debates between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden has thankfully receded into the rearview mirror, perhaps the question should be: Do we really want to suffer through two more?
Tuesday night’s spectacle reminded me of something Abraham Lincoln supposedly said about a friend’s poetry: “For people who like that sort of thing, this is just about the sort of thing they’d like.”
So if what you like are contentious reality programs and talk show smackdowns, Tuesday night must have been perfect. And that’s fine — but why replicate it? It’s not as though Jerry Springer kept inviting the same guests back to throw chairs at each other.
As I understand it, the purpose of these debates is to provide the electorate with a window into how each participant plans to govern if elected or re-elected. In theory, they are aimed at any voters who may be undecided.
But who can still be undecided with such different styles on display? Either you relate to Trump’s rambunctious personality and believe that it makes him a better president, or you don’t. This election is mostly about Trump: Chances are the Democrats could have grabbed some random person off the street to head their ticket without basically affecting the poll numbers.
Only rarely do we hear, “You know, I’m excited about Joe Biden.” Rather, it all comes down to whether someone wants a time out from Trump or craves more of the same. Biden has been in the public eye for 47 years, giving him the allure of a well-worn (if, arguably, dependable) used car.
Meanwhile, while Trump unquestionably lies a lot in his public pronouncements, he is also remarkably honest in some ways. It would seem that the smartest thing for him to have done Tuesday night would have been to show some restraint, however difficult that might be for him, in case some of those few undecideds might think: “You know, he’s a lot more reasonable than I expected.” Instead, he continued to stick to his reality show, wrestling-loving, carnival barker roots. I’m sure his base loved it.
As for Biden’s ploy of occasionally talking directly to the audience like the narrator in the play “Our Town,” it might have been a bit hokey, but it did emphasize that this wasn’t just an exercise in who could talk the loudest.
Trump’s style, love it or loath it, makes debates such as the one Tuesday night virtually unworkable. So what about a format in which each candidate would be given a half-hour — alone — to lay out what his or her plans might be for the next four years? A moderator could offer questions and suggest topics along the way, but this would eliminate the interruptions and lessen the name-calling. Each candidate, still alone, would then have 15 minutes to refute the other.
Tuesday night also said a lot about the current political landscape. We’re forced to pick sides between “red” and “blue” candidates and philosophies, and accepting some points from each is not allowed. It has to be all in, all or nothing, as Republicans and Democrats stare at the world through different sets of virtual reality glasses.
Of course, this split-screen approach had been building long before the ascension of Donald Trump. In 1992, I went to Winston-Salem, NC to cover one of the 1992 presidential debates between George P. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. When it was over, each candidate sent “spin doctors” into the media room to tell us how obvious it was to any intelligent person that their candidate had won the debate. It wasn’t even close, they all said.
Sure, political campaigning is basically a sport. The problem is, this polarization has carried over into the actual business of governing, a scenario that opened the door for Trump in 2016. Now that politics and reality TV have merged, there is no more room for compromise. Chair throwing could be just around the corner.
Rock singer Jackson Browne may have put it best in a long-ago song lyric: “You win. I win. We lose.”
Forget the next two debates. They won’t change anyone’s mind, and they can only make things worse.