American politics has seen many great debates from the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 to the Lincoln-Douglas and Kennedy-Nixon debates, and on through the Reagan and Clinton eras. Although there have been moments when non-issues weighed heavily in the debates, such as Richard Nixon’s poor makeup in 1960, the pressing issues of the day usually have been at the forefront.
With a historical past of substantial debates, the content of the second Republican Presidential debate in September 2015, stands out all the more. While it may appear that I am singling out CNN’s Jake Tapper who moderated it, the problem goes back much further. The previous debate on Fox started with the same tone. Increasingly, presidential debates have become “gotcha” contests with shallow questions and the media waiting for a candidate to misspeak and stumble into a campaign-ending gaffe.
While substantial questions were raised on Syria, Iran, Planned Parenthood and immigration among others, substantial time was spent on topics more appropriate for a late-night talk show or bar argument. Here are a few from the September debate:
“Mrs. Fiorina… Would you feel comfortable with Donald trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”
“Governor Bush, would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?”
‘Governor Christie… Dr. Carson said campaigning is easier for him, because he’s not a politician. He can just tell the truth, therefore, while politicians, quote, ‘Have their finger in the air to see and do what is politically expedient.’ Governor Christie, tell Dr. Carson, is that a fair description of you?”
“Ms. Fiorina… In an interview last week in Rolling Stone magazine, Donald Trump said the following about you. Quote, ‘Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?’ Mr. Trump later said he was talking about your persona, not your appearance. Please feel free to respond what you think about his persona?”
“Governor Bush, Mr. Trump has suggested that your views on immigration are influenced by your Mexican born wife. He said that, quote, ‘If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico.’ Did Mr. Trump go to far in invoking your wife?”
“Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced that a woman will appear on the $10 bill. What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill?”
“[W]hat would you want…your Secret Service codename to be?”
While there might be some real concern if Donald Trump is the right person with his finger on the nuclear button, does anyone really care what Carly Fiorina or Jeb Bush think about it? To their credit, Fiorina and Bush didn’t take the bait and tossed it back as a choice for the voters to decide.
Yet, this was the style that the debate revolved around. The questions continually revolved around how another candidate felt about another candidate’s remarks or personal attacks. Other questions centered around inane details with no real significance, as the questions about putting a historical figure on the ten-dollar bill or what code name to use for the Secret Service. This is not a race for class president and should the mascot of the school be changed. Yet, at times, it seemed no more substantial than that.
To the credit of Scott Walker, he immediately sensed what direction the debate was going when Fiorina and Trump were bantering about nuclear buttons and temperaments as well as Rand Paul’s looks.
“This is actually what’s wrong — this is what’s wrong with this debate. We’re not talking about real issues,” said Walker.
Then, to prove that once a politician gets a good idea that it can’t last, Walker immediately shifted to his own canned and petty remark:
“And Mr. Trump, we don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now.”
None of this is what the Founders of this country imagined. While petty attacks like these have tarnished campaigns since the days of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the attacks were usually by party hacks rounding up votes in the cities and countrysides. Stephen Douglas didn’t point to Abraham Lincoln and ponder if a face like that should be in the Senate.
The debates, even the campaigns, have become a giant reality show about sophomoric politics. A candidate with qualifications and plausible ideas is discounted if he or she lacks charisma. That is probably the fault of the television and internet age. Prior to 1960, there were plenty of Presidents who were unexciting, even boring speakers. As time has advanced, the ability to make a quip and arouse a crowd, more appropriately, a television audience, has emerged as central to any campaign.
All is not completely lost. Ben Carson has taken the high road and avoided engaging in personal attacks. Unfortunately, except for his intelligence, he lacks any other qualification to be President. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders refuses to engage in personal attacks. While all hope is not lost, it has been beaten down to a handful of candidates without a realistic chance of becoming elected.
What we are left now is a contest between showmen. Donald Trump is the epitome of that. Hollywood may as well do the casting for the next President because the United States has evolved into a political show not much different from everyone’s favorite entertainment program.