AGORA: Debates Should be Better

Dan Georgakas and Constantinos Scaros agree on this: presidential debates matter, and they should be better. This AGORA analysis came right before the October 28 GOP debate, a debacle that only strengthens their argument.


Dan, a lot of people don’t realize that Major Party Presidential Debates (MPPDs) – the ones held during the general election between candidates of two or more political parties, with at least one candidate being from a major (Democrat or Republican) party, have only been around since 1960. The famous Kennedy-Nixon debates were not only the first televised debates, they were the first MPPDs, period.

After a 16-year hiatus, the debates resumed, in 1976, sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV), who continued to sponsor the debates until 1984. That’s when the debates were at their best in terms of quality and integrity.

In 1987, when it became evident that the two major parties and their nominees’ campaigns wanted too much control over the debate rules, formats, and questions, the LWV pulled out, in disgust.
Since then, the MPPDs have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates (COPD), which fancies itself nonpartisan but is really bipartisan – an unspoken alliance between the Democrats and Republicans, to the exclusion of smaller parties, and the people as a whole. A debate duopoly, if you will.

But even as the COPD-sponsored debates do not hold a candle to their LWV-sponsored counterparts, they are still leaps and bounds superior to the partisan primary debates that, to varying extents, are circus sideshows.

Thus far, we have seen three this election season: on August 6, the GOP debate sponsored by Fox News, another GOP debate, on September 16, sponsored by CNN, and the October 13 Democratic debate, also sponsored by CNN. The fourth one, scheduled for October 28, is among the Republicans and is sponsored by CNBC. By the time our readers see this, that debate will have taken place. I certainly hope it was better than the first three.

In some ways, the August 6 debate was the best of the three thus far (again, not counting the October 28 debate which, as of this writing, had not yet taken place). That’s the debate in which Donald Trump distinguished himself from the other nine, and dominated the evening. Fox’ Megyn Kelly, whom I dubbed “America’s conservative sweetheart,” took him on, and he lashed out at her. Despite initial backlash by Kelly’s staunch supporters, Trump, amazingly, emerged unscathed.

But Kelly and her colleagues basically did a good job asking tough questions, even as the sheer number of candidates (10) onstage made it nearly impossible to focus on any one of them, or any one issue that was batted around.

In contrast, the September 16 debate was the worst of them all. Jake Tapper annoyingly and incessantly tried to get all the candidates to fight among themselves. “He said this about you, what are you going to do about it?” was the theme, and it seemed like CNN’s desperate attempt to improve its ratings.

The October 13 debate, the first among Democrats, was decent. Anderson Cooper did a far better job than his CNN counterpart Tapper, with the questions having been tough and fair. But, nonetheless, incomplete. There were precious few questions asked about foreign policy, even though there are plenty of crises in that arena to go around, and the party in charge of foreign policy for the past seven years has been the Democrats.

If I weren’t such a relentless anti-conspiracy theorist, I’d think CNN was a shameless shill for Hillary Clinton. After all, many in the 1990s dubbed CNN the “Clinton News Network.”

There is some good news, though. Thus far, tens of millions have watched each debate. For our apolitical nation, that is quite remarkable. I sure hope that trend continues, because, among other things, it levels the playing field. I so wish to see the day soon when political analysists stop talking about how much money each candidate has raised. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, if any pundit mentions dollar amounts, that will be about as relevant as how the candidates prefer their eggs cooked.

Nonetheless, the debates need to be better quality. The audience needs to be not just unseen, but also unheard. Too often, the events sound less like debates and more like Wrestlemania. Also, the moderators get pushed around by the candidates far too often. In 1988, moderator Bernard Shaw, also of CNN, silenced everyone when, ominously, he threatened: “I will clear this room!” if everyone didn’t follow his rules.

Good for you, Bernie. Let’s hope your colleagues on CNN and the other networks can learn from that. What do you think, Dan?


I share your dissatisfaction with the presidential “debates.” Your criticism touches on what was long been called the wasteland of American television and the gradual decline in the quality of American political discourse.

What are advertised as debates are actually glorified press conferences where the concerns of the sponsors vie with those of the public and the candidates. The aim of sponsors is not public service but high viewer ratings. The Democratic “debate” sponsored by CNN, for example, started at 8:30 but a plethora of ads and self-promotional visuals resulted in no questions being asked for some 15 minutes.

The purpose of many questions is to elicit a “gotcha” moment that can be rebroadcasted for days. Such queries might include intemperate questions about sexual assault such as the one at directed at Michael Dukakis some years back or a candidate being egged on to say something nasty about an opponent. CNN’s Democratic debate also had a few questions from “the viewing audience.” All of these had already been vetted by the same people who had vetted the reporters. These were queries from manicured lawns, not the grass roots.

In debates, one person or team begins with a lengthy presentation of an argument, not three-minute sound bites. This is followed by equal time for the opposing person or team. Each side then responds to what the other side has said. In some instances, the audience raises questions at the end of the formal exchanges. Such a format is not possible with multiple candidates. Donald Trump and Ben Carson had been asking for lengthy opening states in future debates. I would never vote for either, but in his instance, they are on the right track.

The Democratic candidates have proven smarter than the Republicans by avoiding personal attacks in their “debate.” Hilary Clinton was by far the most professional, saving her harshest words for the Republican opposition. Sanders actually aided Clinton by scoffing at those who have tried to make her cell phone setups a key campaign issue.

The Republican candidates have allowed their encounters to be laced with mutual personal attacks. The most memorable of involved Donald Trump’s evaluation of Carly Fiorina’s facial features. Her response underscored the profound sexism in his comments. Untouched in the interchange, however, was discussion of the issues American women confront daily. Trump and Fiorina have headed major corporations. There is no evidence that either used their executive power to address a vital feminist issue: equal pay for equal work.

The public certainly deserves to hear from all serious candidates, but candidates must exhibit some base of support, not mere ambition. Many, in fact, actually seek a vice-presidential spot, a seat in the cabinet, or publicity for their books. In any case, just because prominent persons announce presidential aspirations does not automatically make them credible candidates. Even in Greece, whose government is not known for its efficiency, a party has to have at least 3% of the popular vote to enter Parliament. For our presidential “debates,” considerable time is taken by persons who have 0-1% rankings in opinion polls.

That millions of Americans are watching these “debates” by presidential hopefuls is heartening. The U.S. faces numerous grave foreign and domestic policy challenges. The popularity of nonconventional candidates is a telling indication of the intense dissatisfaction felt by many America’s about the nation’s present political course. National consideration of all viable alternatives is a necessity. Unfortunately, the present nature of television “debates” does not address that necessity very well.