That wasn’t a debate. It was a debacle
America’s political discourse crashes and burns
Well, they called it a debate but it was more like a debacle. The event Wednesday night in Milwaukee was billed as a debate that would feature the leading candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, hosted by Fox News. In reality, it was a poorly moderated media circus in which the eight candidates on stage played a predictable political game. If that was a legitimate debate of ideas, I am an NFL quarterback (which I am not, in the event you were wondering).
Political debate has a long history in the political life of nations counted among what Winston Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples.” I have had the experience of attending “Question Time” in Britain’s House of Commons under several governments. My wife and I had the rare privilege of sitting in the gallery and watching Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher debate the opposing political leadership late into the night. Debate in the House of Commons is often loud and argumentative, but it is also disciplined and reveals opposing arguments and real ideas.
Here in the United States, political debates in Congress have sometimes made history, but not so much recently. Our political history includes the famous 1858 debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Crowds stood for hours to listen to Lincoln and Douglas debate issues of massive significance.
More recently, the idea of a major debate between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates emerged in 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy engaged in the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history. Television turned out to be transformative. A majority of Americans who listened to the debate on radio believed that Nixon had “won” the debate. Those watching on television believed Kennedy won the debate. Nixon had been ill and looked haggard. Both Kennedy and Nixon refused professional makeup, but Nixon used an over-the-counter product to mask his “five o’clock shadow.” His makeup ran under the heat of the television lights. Kennedy, whose health was not as good as Nixon’s, nevertheless looked youthful and energetic and healthy. He had the additional benefit of having no paste melting down his cheeks.
Television turned out to be transformative and the internet has just made things worse. There have been a few great and memorable moments in debates throughout the years. President Ronald Reagan won reelection after hitting the ball out of the park with a question about his age. Even his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale, knew the gig was up. Mondale had the decency to laugh about it.
A few years earlier, President Gerald Ford faceplanted as he insisted that Eastern Europe was not then under Soviet domination. It was. Debates in more recent years have become important media events and political shows, but very little serious debate takes place. As with just about everything else, the internet makes it worse. Attention on social media is the new game, and all the candidates play it. What used to be a short media loop has become an instant circus.
Take the event Wednesday night, for example. It was a display of just about everything base and wrong with American politics. Each of the candidates played to a loud strategy that had little to do with advancing any ideas. They just sought to build their brands and blast at their opponents. Furthermore, the candidate leading in the polls did not even show up, affirming once again that he has little interest in the fate of his own party and unflagging interest in his own interest.
There were very few moments worth remembering. The most urgent question discussed on that stage was abortion, and the candidates revealed a lack of candor and clarity on the most important moral issue of our times. There was a real lack of agreement on the question of whether abortion restrictions should be sought at the national level. But that lack of agreement did not lead to any real clarification. The very soul of the Republican Party is at stake on the question of human dignity and the protection of unborn life. The party cannot go in two directions at once. The cacophony of this “debate” had better lead to some clarity and courage on the question of life, and fast.
Meanwhile, there is the plain fact that most of the “candidates” on that stage are not legitimate contenders for the party’s nomination. As Trip Gabriel of The New York Times rightly observed, some of them are running for cable news host or political action committee head or—just maybe—a cabinet officer in a Republican administration.
Fox News declared the debate a great success, but it was really a big commercial product for Fox News itself. The moderators never stood a chance. The show turned into a circus from the onset and those watching got two hours of shouting, posturing, grinning, grimacing, yelling, gesturing, interrupting, brand-making, and ego expression.
It wasn’t the debate we needed, but it was the debate we got. And it wasn’t really a debate at all. It was a show. Welcome to the race for the White House. I need an aspirin.
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