Since 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit bipartisan entity created by America’s two major political parties, has sponsored and produced the presidential debates that have occurred every four years since.
These have provided, up to now, a valuable public service — educating voters on the issues, highlighting the differences between the candidates and gauging how each performs under the pressure of having to articulate and defend their political philosophy and vision for the country.
After last Tuesday night’s embarrassing performance, however, by President Trump and, to a lesser degree, Democratic challenger Joe Biden, the Commission on Presidential Debates would be doing a greater public service by cancelling the last two debates.
There was nothing particularly enlightening about the 98-minute, nationally televised harangue. It degenerated into incredible rudeness, name-calling and a level of incivility that would not be tolerated in schoolchildren, much less in the leader of the most powerful nation on earth and the person vying to replace him. It was a shameful performance by both, instigated by Trump’s obvious strategy from the start to bully, badger and repeatedly interrupt Biden, who occasionally responded in kind, but not to the same distasteful degree as the president.
The over-the-top sparring left Chris Wallace, the hard-questioning but evenhanded journalist from Fox News who moderated the debate, exasperated as he vainly tried to rein in the two combatants. Afterward, many longtime debate observers called it the worst presidential debate of their lifetimes.
The most revealing moments of the evening came from the questions from Wallace that the two men would not answer. Trump refused to say whether he would ask his supporters to remain calm during what is expected to be a protracted counting of the ballots, due to the large number of mail-in votes being cast as a result of the pandemic; whether he would honor the results if he loses; and even whether he would denounce and disassociate himself from white supremacist groups.
Biden refused to say whether, if Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate and Biden wins in November, he would cooperate with the threatened retaliation from the Democratic left wing to try to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices.
There was plenty of other major issues that needed to be discussed — the pandemic, the economy, the civil and racial unrest — but they were largely drowned out by the rancorous tone and incessant interruptions.
This nation is on edge: more than 200,000 dead from a virus that is still ongoing; more than 10 million unemployed; cities in turmoil over cases of police brutality against African Americans that have exploded into a national reckoning on racism; and a political culture that has become so aggressive and demeaning that it is threatening to unravel some of the fabric that holds a democracy together, such as respect for dissenting opinion, an expectation of truthfulness from those in power, and an adherence to the rule of law.
Two more Trump-Biden debates would only exacerbate these tensions. They would provide mostly falsehoods and vitriol and little of substance. They would do more harm than good.
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced, in the wake of Tuesday’s chaos, that it would modify the format of the remaining debates to try to produce better behavior from the candidates. One idea is to shut off a candidate’s microphone when it is not his turn to speak.
But no such tweaking is going to civilize those who will not play by the rules or behave with common decency.
Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.