Made for TV Presidential Debates: Forgettable Candidates and Irritating Format

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.

I’ve just returned from Detroit, Michigan, where I attended the second set of Democratic Party presidential primary debates. For many reasons, the debates were a frustrating experience. In the first place, there were simply too many candidates – many of whom, frankly speaking, didn’t belong cluttering up the stage. And then there was the way these debates were run – more for TV ratings and entertainment, than for serious discussion and enlightenment.

In 1984, I was in New Hampshire with Reverend Jesse Jackson for one of that year’s Democratic presidential primary debates. It was a thoughtful discussion with a professional moderator. At one point, though, I recall looking at the eight candidates on stage and thinking to myself, “Jesse is dominating this debate. He may not win, but he’ll always be remembered. A few years from now, how many of these other guys will we even be able to recall were in this race?”

Sure enough, three years later, I made a practice of asking folks how many of the 1984 candidates they could name. After recalling Jackson, Senator Gary Hart, and then Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee – most got stuck. The others, though quite accomplished (four were senators and one was a governor), had been largely forgotten.

I simply couldn’t understand why most of them were running in 1984. They were nice enough, smart enough, and each of them had realized some degree of success – but they did not and could not stand out as memorable. While I suppose that they each saw themselves in a larger light, complete with fantasies of sitting in the Oval Office, they were largely gray, rather dull individuals, lacking bold ideas or compelling personalities that would distinguish them from a host of other politicians. Why they thought they could rise above the pack and become president was puzzling then and remains so today.

I say this because I had much the same experience this week in Detroit, Michigan. Twenty of the 25 declared candidates met the standards that had been established to participate in the debates. And, as in 1984, they were largely individuals of some distinction. There were seven Senators, seven others who had served or are currently Members of Congress or Governors, three mayors, a former vice-president, and a former cabinet secretary. And yet, as I watched the debate, the 1984 questions came back to me, “Why are they doing this?” and “Will anyone even remember that they ran three years from now?”

As I watched the debates unfold, it became painfully clear that several of the candidates simply lacked the stature to compete. Why, then, were they there? What did they hope to accomplish? And how could they be so lacking in self-awareness that they would subject themselves to the embarrassment of being so outclassed on stage?

Because there were so many who are running, each of the two debate nights featured 10 candidates on stage. And each night’s debates lasted an exhausting two and one-half hours. Especially upsetting was how the debates were run – more as a made for television spectacle, designed to boost ratings (and therefore advertising revenues) than as a serious effort to help voters decide who would be best to lead the nation for the next four years.

A few weeks back, we got an inkling of how the sponsoring network would be operating the debate when they devoted a full hour to a lottery-style drawing to determine which 10 would go on which night. It was bizarre, with each draw shown live, simultaneously, on three cameras ­­– each from a different angle. The draws were preceded by the musical equivalent of a drum-roll, followed by commentary about “what this draw means.” The atmosphere created was more that of a TV game show.

This continued in the days leading up to “Debate Night” – with endless commentary from pundits sounding a lot like sports analysts “gaming the match-ups”, as if we were getting set for a professional boxing match. “Will Senators Warren and Sanders go after each other?” “Will Vice President Biden be ready to defend himself against another attack from Senator Harris?”

Debate night featured more of the same, complete with an hour and a half “pre-game show” that featured rousing warm-up speeches – “Are you ready, Democrats?” – and an actual “warm-up guy” who came onto the stage, I kid you not, with this, “You are a great looking audience, really!” – followed by instructions as to when to applaud and when not to. It was like fight night in Las Vegas.

Then came the debate.

There was a time (like back in 1984), when the debates were driven by the candidates. Now too much attention and control have been given to the TV personalities. It is they, not the candidates, who drive the process, with their obvious biases on display and their intention to stir the pot in order to make for a good show.

This was clear from the beginning as one of the TV hosts saw it as his job to debunk Senator Sanders’ and Warren’s proposed Medicare For All legislation. After trying, himself, to set the trap by repeatedly asking Warren whether she would raise taxes for the middle class to pay for her proposal, he shifted gears, prodding some of the other less known candidates to challenge both Warren and Sanders.

The exchanges that followed became testy (I guess that was viewed as “good for ratings”) and also produced some of the evening’s more memorable lines. Warren shot back at the TV guy “These are Republican talking points!” and she asked one of her opponents why he was running as Democrat if he couldn’t support “big ideas” that helped people. Sanders, for his part, after being badgered by an opponent who continued to interrupt him challenging what was included in the Medicare For All bill, shouted back that of course, he knew what was in there because, “I wrote the damn bill!” He also questioned why we could give billions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest Americans, without any protest, yet balk at spending more to ensure that health care be guaranteed as a right, instead of as a privilege.

If the intent had been to deflate Sanders and Warren, it didn’t work. They fended off challenges and emerged not only unscathed, but the evening’s dominant personalities.

The second “Debate Night” was different. The TV moderators continued to use Sanders’ and Warren’s progressive agenda as foils, baiting the 10 on stage to challenge them, even though they weren’t there to explain what was actually in their proposals. The rest of the evening was a pretty messy affair, as the candidates attacked each other, with the two current on-stage leaders, Biden and Harris bearing the brunt of the attacks. Biden looked defensive and, at times, flustered. Although Harris was crowned as the “star” of the first debate for her gimmicky challenge to Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing to end school segregation, when challenged in this debate for her record as a prosecutor, she didn’t fare as well. She looked defensive and peevish. In fact, the star of the night was Senator Cory Booker whose winsome personality and calm demeanor kept him largely above the fray.

So, there you have it. After two nights in which millions of dollars were spent (and millions in advertising revenues were earned), what we got were a few memorable lines, a few lasting impressions, a few battered candidates, a few who weathered attacks, and a lot of heat with very little light.

This is not the way it should be. We should be able to elect the person who will lead us (and much of the world) into the future based on their policies, their ability to effectively organize, and their life’s work, not on their showmanship or their one-up-man-ship in a reality TV-style game show.

And, by the way, as was the case in 1984, I believe that even a year from now most voters will have trouble remembering who else, other than a few notable stars, were on that debate stage in Detroit.