OPINION: Debating Debates

(Illustration by Kent Willmeth | The Collegian)

Tonight, the fourth Republican debate is taking place and this Saturday the Democrats take their second turn. After not-too-remarkable first debate performances by former Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Gov. Jim Webb, they have since dropped out as presidential candidates, and on the other side both Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Mike Huckabee did not make the newest cutoff (2.5 percent average national polling) for the main stage.

The latter two will replace Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. George Pataki in the undercard round, but not making the main event will severely hurt their already low chances in the race.

The debates seem to serving one of their purposes in winnowing the fields on either side, but is that all they’re succeeding in? Are they positively serving national discourse, or are they providing efficient platforms for policy discussions or ideology contrasts?

Especially after the last Republican debate on CNBC, that answer seems to be a hearty no (the phrase dumpster fire comes to mind for some reason). Instead of delving into differences amongst each other, the candidates in the last debate largely united against the moderators themselves, and also decried the bias of the (liberal) media.

The moderators asked Donald Trump if he was running a “comic book campaign,” and if Sen. Marco Rubio didn’t like his current job (questioning his many missed Senate votes), or asking former Gov. Jeb Bush why voters seemed to have turned on him. The candidates did not take kindly to such pressing and saw the moderators attempts at follow-ups as overly aggressive.

Sen. Ted Cruz arguably delivered the line of the night.

“Let me say something at the outset: The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Cruz said. “This is not a cage match.”

Christie, after being pressed for specificity on climate change, got in another solid jab on his questioners.

“John, do you want me to answer or do you want to answer? How are we going to do this?” Christie asked. “Because I got to tell you the truth: Even in New Jersey, what you are doing is called rude.”

Rubio took the chance to cleverly deliver a staple of the modern Republican party when he said, “You know the Democrats have the ultimate Super PAC, it’s called the mainstream media.”

The debate was such a train wreck that the RNC has suspended its relationship with NBC, and pulled out of the network’s future scheduled debate that was to be held Feb. 26, 2016. This event has been a great catalyst to people’s (not just recent) criticism of our current debating system.

Professor David McGrath opined in the Chicago Sun Times that “If moderators invited candidates to react in authentic presidential situations like these, voters would not be subjected to speech writers’ campaign pitches which their candidates have memorized.”

The Portland Press Herald argued to remove the audience, as to “keep moderators and candidates alike from playing to the crowd,” and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wants all lightning round questions because they “often — in truth, almost always — (are) the ones that get candidates off their pre-planned debate scripts. No matter how seemingly inane, the lightning round makes candidates think.”

My problem with these debates thus far is how boring and repetitive they become. And the reason for that is that the debates from Republicans and Democrats are debates in basically different worlds. Certain granted premises (like the idea of the liberal media, or the overwhelming crisis of climate change for example) are acceptable to use in one debate, but would be very unaccepted in the other, vehemently challenged. That’s what I am excited for. And we assume we have to wait for it.

No, despite that we settle for “primary debates” exclusive to one party or the other, I would argue that debates amongst each other aren’t going to bring out ideological thinking and challenge the candidates’ policy positions nearly as much as debates featuring candidates from both sides together.

And there’s no reason why we should wait until we have each party’s candidate – why not get to know them better before we pick them? One candidate, Bernie Sanders, has even proposed the same thing.

I’m tired of politically-safe preaching to the ideological choir, and tired of the election’s focus being on the performance of the moderators or some inane pot shot one candidate lobbed at another. Let’s have some real, actually productive arguments already that the current system is not yet allowing.

Hi, I’m Jonathan. I graduate this December, majoring in Anthropology, with minors in Creative Writing and Political Science. After that … we’ll see. Maybe graduate school in environmental anthropology. Maybe I’ll finally pursue my old childhood dream of becoming an infomercial host. It’s up in the air. Some of my interests and hobbies include devout sports fanaticism, religious study, and composing country songs that serve to explain the unearthly amount of disdain I have for country music. My band’s called Catfish Hurricane, you should check us out. Well, actually, you shouldn’t. I love writing, which is how I accidentally stumbled into this job. This stumbling into good things is my plan for life in general.