When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas met in seven debates in 1858, the two dominated national headlines. Thousands of people attended the series, held in communities across Illinois.
Those debates weren’t for a presidential bid, but rather to fill a U.S. Senate seat, Douglas as the incumbent and Lincoln as a rising congressman. Apparently, the debates were civil and informative, with each candidate diagramming his political vision and his views on slavery. Lincoln lost that election – the Illinois Legislature voted for the Senate back then, and chose Douglas – but the prominence Lincoln gained helped him later win the presidency.
Much has changed, evidenced by the political nightmare that occurred last week when President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated – a word used as loosely as possible – on national television.
Trump hijacked it early, interrupting Biden numerous times; Biden reciprocated with name-calling.
Afterward, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it is considering measures to help keep order. Among the ideas: Cut the microphone of unruly candidates.
Yes, please do change the rules, although it’s not that easy. Since the candidates agreed to the current format, it’s possible they won’t give consent to a debate that allows the moderator to kill their mic.
Anyone who feels last week’s debacle was an actual debate simply does not understand the process or the intended goals and outcomes of civilized, gentlemanly debates.
The intent? To provide the electorate an opportunity to hear each candidate’s vision, with clarifications that naturally come via face-to-face dialogue. Debates aren’t about bluster, shouting and name-calling; nor should they be about gotcha questions that trap candidates.
Herald staff members over the years have participated in and moderated numerous debates. Each is preceded by much preparation, checking in with the candidates and formulating questions that are, on the whole, fair to all invited participants.
The more preparation that goes into the event, the chances improve that the resulting debate will be fair and informative while separating the candidates on issues that are important to the electorate. Again, debates should politically separate the candidates, a process that helps voters decide.
(Note: This was written prior to the scheduled debate between the vice president candidates. Hopefully, civil separation occurred in that event).
A debate should be a form of entertainment, but not one of sensationalism or political fireworks. Nobody wants a boorish shouting match or immature name-calling. Anyone who enjoys and understands true political debate should be distressed by what happened last week.
Going forward, limitations should be put in place to hinder the ability of candidates who bypass the rules laid out when they agreed to participate. In the past, blustery displays or name-calling might have cost a candidate the election; in today’s sensational environment, it’s possible many viewers declare a winner based solely on that sort of bombast. That means debates, as historically intended, may die.
Hopefully, decorum and maturity will return to future debates – not only for the sake of democracy, but for the sake of civility and voter education.