General Election Debates: Summary & Conclusion

[Note that this was written just before the 2016 cycle occurred, as I’d initially watched all the other debates to contextualize the 2016 election itself. I’ll offer updated thoughts in brackets.]

Now that I’m officially done analyzing all General Election Presidential debates, I guess I’ll share some overall thoughts. With the notable outlier of 1996, they get icreasingly more exciting and animated as they go on. The 1976 debates are borderline unwatchable even for a political history junkie like me, and 1980 as well as ’84 are somewhat stiff in comparison to today’s. In some ways, that’s probably better for the country though, as the focus is more on policy than personality. In any case, I strongly recommend watching 1988, 1992, and all from the 21st century. [You can skip 2016, except for the historicity of watching America hit an indefensible new low.]

If I had to narrow the 21st century down, I’d say at least check out 2000 and 2012. The former is a tragic reminder of what might have been with Gore, as well as the first real examination of the worst President in US history. [Now that distinction is debatable, with Trump making a solid case for the title.] Hearing Gore talk about America taking advantage of its lone super power status and surplus to invest in other countries and lead by example makes me sad to think how badly we bungled the good will we had and that money. All we got for it was an illegal war and disastrous domestic policy, where we tortured people and stripped ourselves of our own Constitutional rights. We will never have that opportunity again, and for many reasons the Pax Americana seems poised to end in the very near future if it isn’t dead already. [Post-Trump it’s guaranteed other countries won’t trust us again for decades if ever.]

The later series, 2012, is a great example of Obama’s campaigning and oratory skill. Say what you will about his Presidency, I’m certainly critical towards many of his policies myself, but Obama is the most suave, sophisticated orator in modern US history. Unlike the other debates which tend to be pretty even in terms of performance, he absolutely murdered Romney on stage and it was a joy to watch.

While I’m spouting out general thoughts on Presidential debates, I say again for the record it is an absolute travesty that there were none held in 1964, ’68 and ’72. All three of which were some of the best, most pivotal and fascinating elections in our history. There were four conducted in 1960, but for whatever reason that was just a fluke and it did not become the standard until 1976, one of the least exciting elections with two of the least inspiring candidates. I’d give anything to see Goldwater and McGovern in a presidential debate. And I believe the exposure would have helped McGovern score back some much needed support so the results wouldn’t have been so lopsided.

Historical Trends

One thing to take note of is how consistently the Democrats ceded ground to the Republicans year after year, letting conservative platitudes guide the discourse and reacting rather than leading. The only time this was arguably reversed was in 2008, and even then it was because they’d shifted so far right in ’04 there was nowhere to retreat to anymore, especially against a maverick conservative like McCain. Studying election history, it’s clear to me now that the story of the post-McGovern Democratic Party is the story of identity crisis and running away from their own past since 1972. It’s impossible to overstate how pivotal the 1972 election was to the course of history, and I firmly believe it’s the single most important election they don’t teach you about in school. McGovern’s staggering loss convinced the Democrats to abandon liberalism, and was the beginning of the divide between the old left of organized labor and the New Deal coalition versus the New Left of hippies, feminists and minorities. Since then, the Democrats struggled to find firm footing and only won a Presidential election by abandoning liberalism for the Third Way in the 1990s. Progressives, those in favor of universal healthcare, relaxed drug laws, Basic Income, etc, haven’t been nominated in national politics since.

After watching the debates, this isn’t some unfounded hobby-horse theory, you see it cycle by cycle as they slowly but surely adopt “tough on crime”, “lower taxes”, “stop drugs”, “hunt down terrorists”, “invade XYZ country” rhetoric. They also outright refuse to own the word “liberal” itself whenever the Republicans throw it at them as an insult. It became a dirty word. This is how we got to where we are today, with both parties being more or less equal on economics and foreign policy, neoliberal and neoconservative respectively, with the only real differences being social wedge issues. Unfortunately, modern Democrats don’t seem to notice or care about this gradual hallowing out of our noble values. Rather than call their party to a higher standard, they’ll gladly fall in line behind Republican-Lite because political correctness is more important than actual policy. (I’m not saying standing up for minorities isn’t important too, but that shouldn’t be the only difference between our only two viable parties in this country. Plus, economic justice is a rising tide which will raise all ships as opposed to social wedge issues which focus on smaller scale problems at the expense of ignoring the root of all our issues.) I believe this is why the Republicans have gone so far right to where they’re now virtually unviable as a national party without gerrymandering, vote-tampering and Russian collusion. They’ve received no push-back from the Democrats that a healthy two party system requires. They just kept pushing until…well…Donald fucking Trump is their candidate and “build a ridiculously inefficient wall” is his platform.

More than reading about the elections and candidates, seeing them in action gave me the best feel for who was a windbag and who was a natural born leader each cycle. You can read about people not liking Carter all day, but it really comes alive when you see just how boring, awkward and uninspiring he is as a speaker. Same with Ford, Mondale and Dole. By contrast, Reagan, Clinton and Obama, even though I’m not a fan of any of their policies, unquestionably command attention and suck you in with their charismatic personalities. Poor Mondale, Dole and Romney never had a fucking chance.

Highs, Lows and Debate Trivia

I would say the most frustrating debate cycle was 2004. You really see all the hope and enthusiasm for a brave new century (millennium, really) evaporate into hatred, fear-mongering and war. Watching those debates put me back in those dark times, and seeing Kerry not hit hard on the torture and mass surveillance was like watching the final nail in the coffin for the Democratic party of progressivism and idealism of which McGovern’s campaign was the last hurrah.

I would say the most frustrating moment in any debate was Gore’s “what about the dingell norwood bill??!?!” gaffe in 2000. That was such a ridiculously unnecessary, self inflicted wound that probably single-handedly cost him the election. The sighing in the first debate of 2000 too. People can blame Nader all they want, but if Gore wasn’t such a pompous ass in that series he would have had that election, “spoiler” candidate or no. It’s especially maddening because I actually think the Gore who competed in the 1988 primary and ’90s VP debates is one of strongest, no-nonsense debaters of all time. He just completely lost his mojo when it really mattered.

ASIDE: The 2016 debates were more frustrating to watch overall but I can think of no one specific moment that had me shaking my head in disappointment as Gore’s gaffes. This is mostly because I believe Gore would have been a good if not outstanding President whose administration would have set us on a fundamentally different course than we’ve taken. By contrast, I hated Hillary as much as Trump and I think her Presidency would have been another 4 or 8 years of stagnation and decay. At least Trump might possibly be the shock to our core the system needed that could lead to some much needed reforms in the near future.

The most unfair question ever posed to a candidate is undeniably the 1988 death penalty one at Dukakis, but one thing I’ve learned is every cycle (except maybe 2012) had bad questions. What made the death penalty one so much worse is how needlessly graphic it was, and how it was the very first question of the debate. It wasn’t even balanced, since they did not ask Bush if he’d still support the death penalty if his kid murdered someone, or how he’d react if his daughter had an abortion or something equally personalized and inflammatory. It was either inexcusably careless or a deliberate act of sabotage which should have cost Bernard Shaw (assuming he wrote the questions) his job.

The most interesting question also came in 1988, asking who the candidates consider heroes in America at the time. Unfortunately neither gave a great answer, just rattling off all the cliched jobs they could think of (“police men are heroes…and uh…fire fighters…and doctors…and good plumbers…and…”) Had they given honest, unique answers though, that could have been an illuminating insight into their personalities and the kinds of principles they admire.

I think the best debater has got to be Obama. Bar none. But again, it’s the charismatic, natural born leaders like Reagan and Clinton who stand out on that front as the best. Coincidentally or not, I consider Romney to be the worst debater of the general election candidates with Hillary a close second. But it depends on what you consider to make a person the worst. Carter, Ford, and Dole are all boring and grating to listen to. I can’t remember a thing they said mere days after watching them. Bush I was distasteful due to how personal he gets when the other two candidates are making a point not to stoop to that level. Bush II just makes me want to strangle him, but mostly because I know in hindsight everything he said in 2000 was a lie and Kerry let him get away with too much in 2004. But I don’t think any candidate actively made themselves look like a bigger idiot than Romney in 2012. He sabotaged his own campaign, and I have never seen anyone do worse in that regard.

ASIDE: After seeing 2016, I think Hillary and Trump are neck and neck for the second and third worst slots. Trump for sacrificing even any pretenses of civility and decorum. Hillary for reacting to Trump in the worst possible way, failing to definitively put him down even with so much ammo, and walking into several obvious traps. He baits her into describing her unpopular gun policies in ALL THREE DEBATES in case anyone missed it. She walks into that “so did Bill” deflection perfectly in debate #2, and a lot more. Because she had been preparing for this moment all her adult life, she specifically tried to go against Trump and used a pied piper strategy to help him win the primaries, and Trump is clearly suffering from dementia and/or narcissistic personality disorder, I have to give a slight edge to Hillary as more pathetic.

Improving the Format

Throughout the debates, I’ve consistently commented that I think the format ought to be changed. No 2 minute, 1 minute answers and no 30-60 second rebuttals. It ought to be AT LEAST 5 minutes and 2.5 minutes for an answer and rebuttal, respectively. In fact, I’d prefer something more like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where candidates spoke for 30 minutes at a time, minimum. Give them a chance to lay out their entire position as in-depth as they need. More often than not, they still had a lot to say when the moderator came in interrupting “WE NEED TO MOVE ON!!” Why? Let the debate take as long as it has to take. What could possibly be more important that we can’t expend another hour or two if we have to? We don’t need the talking heads on CNN telling us who “won” for 30-60 minutes afterward or the talking heads at FOX calling the Democrat an unpatriotic evil Muslim Socialist for the rest of the night. Stream it online, PBS or CSPAN, and let it play out naturally until the candidates feel they have relayed their entire platform in as much detail as required.

I’d have the first two debates be done in that Lincoln Douglas style. (One guy starts with 60 minutes of speaking time, the next guy gets a 90 minute response, first guy gets a final 30 minute rebuttal.) First debate would be about domestic policy only. In the second debate, switch to foreign policy and flip the speaking order so that whoever opened and closed the first time now goes in the middle. The third debate can then be a town hall style where they take various questions from the audience, which are intended to get the candidates to expand on any gaps from their previous performance. So, for example, if candidate-X never mentioned his stand on drug legalization, they might get asked about that. If candidate-Y mentioned how he would be open to invading the Middle East, he might get a question about where the red line is. If candidate-Z mentioned universal healthcare but didn’t say how it would be paid for, she might be pressed to provide details. For this final debate, I’d give them at least 5 minutes to answer, and 2.5 minutes for rebuttals. This final debate continues for three hours or until there are no more questions to be asked, whichever comes first or whichever the candidates all agree to beforehand.

I’d have annotated sources pop up on screen to call out whenever a candidate outright lies, and perhaps showing their website or another source where their full position on an issue can be found, especially when they don’t have time to lay it all out. I’d tell the moderators to cool it, and only step in when someone is ridiculously over time, totally off topic, or resorting to ad hominem or strawman attacks against their opponents. Otherwise a moderator should be as silent as the grave, unbiased as gray and humble as pie. Constantly jumping in to force the candidates to address some borderline irrelevant subtopic of their own choosing, or “don’t say it to me, say it to him!” or selectively enforcing the rules like that one moderator with the stout face did every debate he was in is a total abuse of power. He may have meant well, but every time that imbecile stepped in it was for the worse, and every debate without him was a marked improvement.

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