Feb. 19, 2020. It is a night that still replays almost frame by frame in my mind. My former longtime boss, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, was going onstage for his first presidential debate to face off with other leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. But I was nervous.
Days earlier, I had warned in an opinion piece for CNN that Bloomberg needed to avoid the debate stage at all costs. As someone who had been by his side since the very birth of his foray into politics — his run for mayor in 2001 — I knew that no matter how much debate prep he had under his belt, Bloomberg was going to get his clock cleaned by the longtime professional politicians he was going up against on that stage.
The current model of American presidential debates effectively favors a certain personality type — sharp rhetorical and verbal skills or a knack for delivering punchy one-liners.
And that is precisely what happened. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was relentless in her verbal assault on Bloomberg that night, frequently leaving the former mayor flat-footed and struggling to defend himself.
It was a brutal pummeling. And it ultimately marked the beginning of the end for a campaign that at that point had been rising swiftly in the polls, buoyed by nearly a billion dollars in spending and a platform offering an impressive track record of public- and private-sector leadership and an even-keeled, centrist and no-nonsense approach to the presidency — something that would have marked an 180-degree reversal from the splenetic years under Donald Trump.
I found myself thinking about this turn of events again when the Republican National Committee announced that it was considering amending its rules to ban GOP presidential candidates from participating in debates put on by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD.
Bloomberg was participating in a debate organized by the Democratic National Committee — intramural affairs that would ostensibly not be affected by the cancellation of CPD-sponsored debates. But if the end result of the RNC’s saber-rattling is that the institution of the presidential debate comes to an end, I would say good riddance. And with no clear indication of how the RNC would replace the commission’s debates, it seems like that could be a real possibility.
In a letter to the commission, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote that “[s]o long as the CPD appears intent on stonewalling the meaningful reforms necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor, the RNC will take every step to ensure that future Republican presidential nominees are given that opportunity elsewhere.”
I don’t buy into the RNC’s specious arguments that the nonpartisan commission has established rules that tend to favor Democratic candidates, but I firmly believe that the theatrics, pageantry and hoopla that have become the modern national political debate stage make a mockery of our political process.
A nationally televised debate should be a serious affair that highlights opposing candidates’ differences in policy and gives the public a chance to see what kind of leaders it might be electing. Instead, in recent years these debates have often seemed more akin to the verbal equivalent of an MMA fight.
Who can forget Trump’s ominously pacing behind Hillary Clinton at a 2016 town hall debate? It was a bizarre incident that was so outrageous that some in the media called it a “scorched-earth” affair. “Saturday Night Live” parodied the incident with Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) lurching at Clinton (portrayed by Kate McKinnon) while music and sound effects reminiscent of the film “Jaws” played offstage.
Although we in the media may like the fireworks and intrigue that come with these meme-worthy events, they do a disservice to our country and our democratic process. The histrionics of these over-the-top contests make many voters simply tune out; worse yet, for many others, it drives disengagement, turning them off entirely to politics and civic life in general.
Furthermore — and this is something that I have often thought about over the past few election cycles — I am not sure what part of being a good debater makes for being a good president. The first official debate between then-President Trump and then-candidate Joe Biden in September 2020 was widely disparaged by both the public and the media. The essence of the evening was perhaps best captured in a headline from The New York Times summing up the evening: “With Cross Talk, Lies and Mockery, Trump Tramples Decorum in Debate With Biden.”
The skills required to “perform” well on the debate stage have minimal crossover to performing well as the leader of the free world. It’s not as if the winner of the presidential election then goes on to debate other world leaders in televised affairs. We don’t see Biden and Vladimir Putin, for example, debating in front of live global TV audiences.
On the contrary, most of the critical policy debates and decisions in the Oval Office happen behind closed doors and are shrouded in secrecy far away from public view. The ability to think quickly on one’s feet and be witty might be a form of intelligence, but no president makes decisions on the fly without consulting top experts and deputies in real life.
The current model of American presidential debates effectively favors a certain personality type — sharp rhetorical and verbal skills or a knack for delivering punchy one-liners. Why is it that we remember virtually meaningless but poignant barbs delivered on the debate stage (who can forget Lloyd Bentsen’s famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy” riposte to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate?), yet we often forget the context of the policy that was being discussed?
Some might be surprised to learn that the presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon that roughly follows the growth of broadcast television. Although there were a couple of earlier Democratic and Republican primary debates, the first official debate between presidential candidates from opposing parties was in 1960, between Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.
It’s almost as if we are interviewing our candidates and making them pass a test that has absolutely no bearing on the job itself.
Many historians cite that the theatrics of that first presidential debate — when Nixon’s pale suit and lack of makeup made him look weak and unpresidential — as the turning point in the election, leading to Kennedy’s victory. I’m not saying Nixon should have been elected president, but neither should he have lost because of his choice of suit color or because his lack of makeup revealed a five o’clock shadow.
It’s almost as if we are interviewing our candidates and making them pass a test that has absolutely no bearing on the job itself. At its best, the importance given to presidential debates signals to voters that debate prowess is a reasonable proxy for being a good president, although it potentially sidelines many perfectly able but not verbally skilled candidates from seeking the highest office in the land. At its worst, the nationally televised debate circuit provides a platform for promoting hucksters and blowhards, bestowed with the gift of gab but entirely unfit to take the reins of the world’s lone superpower.
It’s time for presidential debates to come to an end.