To debate or not debate: new rules are the question by Majorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

So, now he’s said it. President Biden told Howard Stern recently that he’d be willing to debate Donald Trump. With all due respect, I disagree. I just don’t think there’s anything to be gained.


I have always embraced the high-minded goals of candidate debate: well-reasoned,
fact-based discussion; values-driven argumentation; clarification, prioritization of positions. Dignified dialogue serves the goal of an informed electorate. I hosted debates professionally and, even now,
regularly moderate local candidate debates. The ability to compare and contrast has always been the potentially useful outcome of such events.


But a Trump-Biden debate? Well-reasoned fact-based discussion? Honest explanations of positions on complex topics? Fuggedabouddit!  Experts have computed 30,000 lies by Trump during his presidency, 21 a day.  And that doesn’t even include his most repeated Big Lie, that he won the 2020 election. Values-driven argumentation? Trump values only self-interest: staying out of jail; feeding his narcissism. Dignified dialogue? He can’t even follow New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan’s fair trial-protective “gag” order in a Manhattan criminal courthouse. Trump’s just not a play-by-the-rules kind of guy. Debates for him are just another stage for his grotesque political theater.


Will Trump claim Biden is afraid to debate him? Maybe, but remember: Trump did not participate in a single one of the five televised Republican debates during this primary season. Should we infer that Trump was afraid of Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie or Vivek Ramaswamy? It was a strategic decision. If challenged, Biden could always say “the President should not participate in forums with a person under criminal indictment for his attempt to overthrow the Constitution.”


For the networks, it’s all about the money. TV news ratings are down. Hosting presidential debates means attracting bigger audiences – hence more advertising revenues. The purpose of presidential debates, it’s been observed, is “more about making the audience available to corporations than about making the candidates available to the audience.” As former CBS CEO Les Moonves told stockholders in 2016, Trump’s P.T. Barnum-inspired candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Despite the “rich tradition” language used by network executives urging Biden and Trump to debate each other, Presidential debates are not an indispensable part of the electoral process. Lyndon Johnson refused to debate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nixon refused to debate his opponents in 1968 and 1972. Carter refused to debate Reagan twice in 1980 when John Anderson would have been included.

Our currently structured presidential debates seldom help voters decide for whom to vote. Atmospherics mean more than substance, and they’re a minefield for gaffes and unflattering moments. Remember that to radio listeners, but not TV watchers, Nixon “won” the famous first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

Viewers, most of whom have already made up their minds, tune in looking more for entertainment than information. Reporters and commentators covering debates look for “gotcha” moments rather than nuanced analyses.  They play up quips like Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” deflation of Jimmy Carter’s long critique of Reagan’s position on Medicare, ignoring Reagan’s non-response to the points Carter raised.  Four years later, 73-year-old Reagan’s joking to a younger Walter Mondale, ” I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” effectively quieted concerns about his dementia that seemingly was present in their first debate and became apparent in his second term.

In varying degrees, these moments are all rehearsed and entertaining but little more than stagecraft. Quips and mannerisms may make the moment. But to what end? Do they tell us much about the character of the candidates? How will they avoid or handle crises? Do they say anything about the quality of the staffs they will assemble or the cabinet they will appoint? Do they tell us how they will interact with foreign ministers and presidents or how they will function as leader of the free world?

If the networks get their way and President Biden does debate former President Trump, it should only be because certain conditions are set, agreed to, and met. First, the candidates must publicly release ten years of their tax returns at least a week before the first debate. Biden has already done so. Trump, notwithstanding qualified promises in the past, has never done this.

Second, each debate should focus on just a few topics, for example, the economy: inflation, taxes and spending, and federal deficits, comparing the priorities of each administration- past and future; specific domestic priorities like health care, public safety, immigration, energy, the environment, and reproductive freedom and how each would  implement their choices given our complicated government structure; plus America’s role in the world, including trade, national interests, human rights and alliances

I’d particularly like to listen to an extended discussion about Obamacare and the details of Trump’s still-secret plan to replace it.  Perhaps there could be a final debate on their contrasting views on the Constitution, separation of powers, presidential immunity, the proper role of government bureaucrats and political appointees, and the legitimacy of anti-constitutional violence by election losers.

Enough time should be allotted for deep dives into each subject. The questioners should have a high level of expertise and not simply be network personalities tapped for their commercial appeal or blandness. Think tax policy experts, climate scientists, former (non-lobbyist) congressional staffers. They should be permitted to ask at least two follow-up questions to avoid evasive responses.

Third, holding a Trump-Biden debate should be contingent upon real-time, independent fact-checking by teams approved by both candidates and hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential debates. After commercial breaks, before the next segment begins, fact checkers should point out the misleading statements, incorrect statistics, and baldfaced lies just made by either candidate. This would help viewers with limited debate-watching attention spans and put the candidates on notice that what they say is being closely monitored.

Finally, if a candidate goes over the time limit allotted for each response or talks over the other candidate, the mic should be promptly turned off on the violator and not turned on until his turn to speak.

We know Donald Trump’s debate modus operandi – lying, name-calling, leaving his podium to tread on his opponent’s personal space. Failing to provide immediate third-party corrections would force Biden to spend valuable time calling out Trump, and the President’s clarifying responses would likely be dismissed by low-information voters as just partisan rhetoric.

I have no doubt that one if not both candidates would object to some if not all of my proposals.  But unless clearcut conditions are imposed and the rules are enforced, at this point there’s no reason to organize an event that is doomed at the outset and likely only to further demean the process.

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