The end of the debate
The president turns a globally respected American institution into a national embarrassment
Among the institutions Donald Trump has attacked in the past three and a half years, the televised presidential debate might not seem much. It does not guarantee the rule of law, protect the environment or defend the homeland. It has hardly ever been electorally significant. Maybe only the first televised duel, which pitted a sweaty, shady looking Richard Nixon against a youthful, make-up wearing John Kennedy in 1960, materially affected a race. Yet at a time when some of the most basic assumptions about American democracy are being challenged by Mr Trump’s scorched-earth presidency, as he illustrated with a debate performance of stunning brutishness in Cleveland on September 29th, the merits of the format are worth recalling.
Before this week they were threefold. The president, setting aside the exalted status and electoral advantages of incumbency, must submit to the same pre-agreed rules as his challenger. (No president since Nixon, following his humiliation in 1960, has ducked the format.) Second— and notwithstanding a mountain of evidence that most people do not vote on the basis of such things— debates affirm the importance of plans and ideas. This projects a degree of seriousness that is otherwise largely absent from most political coverage.
The candidates’ competing proposals also underline the degree to which elections are a choice. And because they are essentially making their pitches to a vast television audience, the debates also underline how that the choice falls to ordinary Americans. Boosted by a paucity of campaigning because of covid-19, the 90-minute, ad-free event in Cleveland was watched by an estimated 80m, over half the electorate. Millions more watched around the world— which speaks to a third quality of the presidential debate.