Let’s Not Do This Again

A week before the presidential debate, I said to a friend: “I am not sure you can ‘win’ a debate with a liar.” The atrocity that occurred on September 29 in Cleveland proved my point. Not only did the president predictably and automatically lie, distort and demean, he refused to abide by the simple rules of the debate, rules which he or his minions agreed to beforehand. So he is both a liar and a person who cannot be trusted to keep his word.

He constantly interrupted with a relentless drone of jibes and inquisition, blocking his opponent, Joe Biden, from effectively communicating with the audience. Chris Wallace, the hapless and impotent moderator, tried valiantly to have the candidates give a full response on the issues he presented to them. The president, who never stopped talking, managed to avoid or derail Wallace’s questions. The resulting spectacle was 90 minutes of frequently unintelligible crosstalk. The president succeeded in keeping attention focused on himself, which may lead his defenders to conclude that he won the debate.

My first thought when it was all over was dismay. This man—a boorish, crude and dishonest person—is the President of the United States! He is the representative of the United States. People around the world form their opinions of all Americans based on how the president behaves. He embarrasses us all.

This thought was followed soon by wondering how the next two presidential debates can avoid being like this one was, what CNN’s Dana Bash cogently described as a shit show. If the next two are going to be more of the same, what is the point of holding them and why would people want to watch? Of course, that is precisely the president’s game plan: make more people disgusted by the process, disengaged from the details and discouraged from voting. Joe Biden would be justified in refusing to participate in such a charade again—although the president would inevitably call him a coward.

The next debate, scheduled for October 15, would be a “town hall” format, which can only be worse because the president would have a live audience to play to. The Commission on Presidential Debates should have a re-think about the format. Merely giving the moderator the power to mute the mics would not be of much use because the muted candidate would move closer to his opponent’s live mic or talk ever louder.

My suggestion would be to put each of the candidates in a separate studio where they could hear their opponent but would be unable to interrupt. Each man would be allowed alternating , uninterrupted two-minute segments in which to respond to the moderator’s question or to respond to the opponent’s statements, and they would be given a verbal warning when their time period was about to expire.  

But not only can you not win a debate with a liar, the Cleveland spectacle showed us that you cannot even have a debate in any real sense of the word with a fabricator. A presidential debate should be about comparing and contrasting the ideas and policy prescriptions of the candidates for dealing with the major issues of the day. It should be an organized discussion that provides a format for equal-time presentation of the candidates’ views and rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments. Ideally, the result is a clarification of each candidate’s vision for the future of our nation. Ideally, the public learns something they did not already know about the candidates.

The spectacle in Cleveland was not a debate. It was an extended infomercial for the president’s vision of himself playing presidential. In 2016 he said: “I can be more presidential than any president that this country has ever had except for Abraham Lincoln.” Tellingly, his words reveal that he lacks the character or even the interest to be president, but he believes he can play the role. And that is what he’s done.

To play at being presidential demonstrates a certain contempt for the office of the presidency and for the American people themselves. He leads by example—but bad example. The example he set this week in Cleveland was shameless contempt for the rules of the debate and for his opponent and, worse, contempt for the election process and the voters’ intelligence. He modeled the contempt that he wants people to feel: contempt for Joe Biden and Democrats in general and contempt for an election process that will of necessity rely on mail-in ballots. He wants people to believe that for him to lose, the election must be rigged. He is prepared to take that fabrication all the way to the Supreme Court where he is counting on five justices, at least, also to follow his example.

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