I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

The man has dealt a blow to the tradition of televised debates from which it might never recover. Good.

These empty rituals draw huge audiences but do nothing to inform voters. They exist only because we are so used to them, and we needed a Trump-sized disruption to see them for what they are.

That may not have been the plan when he grabbed a podium in Cleveland two weeks ago and interrupted and bullied anyone he could for 90 minutes.

Moderator Chris Wallace tried to ask questions, but apparently questions are for suckers. Joe Biden tried to challenge him on his record, but Trump deftly pivoted to pointing out that Biden’s son once had a drug problem.

At the end, commentators struggled to find adjectives to describe how awful it was.


The best analysis came from CNN’s Jake Tapper: “It was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.”

All the pundits agreed, and the pollsters confirmed, that Biden won because he didn’t talk much. But, we were told in solemn tones, the real loser was the American voter.

We got distracted from the debate discussion pretty quickly. Two days later Trump announced that he’d come down with COVID, and then the political analysis turned to wondering how sick he was and how many people he may have infected. This was heightened when we found that among the debate rules he’d violated was the one where you had to be tested for coronavirus before taking the stage. It turns out Trump was late and was allowed to debate on the “honor system.”

Attention to debates was revived last week when the vice-presidential candidates took the stage in Salt Lake City, where extra precautions were taken to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from infecting his opponent, Kamala Harris, in case he caught COVID from his boss.

This event was universally described as more civil. No voices were raised, no family members attacked.

Aside from some plexiglass partitions, it looked very much like a normal debate that we have become accustomed to over the years.


And that’s the problem. A normal debate turns out to be just as bad as dumpster-fire debate when it comes to giving voters real information about the candidate’s platform. Neither candidate answered any questions, and Pence paid no more attention to the rules than Trump. These debates tell us as much about how candidates would handle the presidency as a reality show like “The Real World” teaches us about housing policy.

As Michael J. Socolow, a UMaine associate professor of journalism and communications, pointed out last year, this is no accident. The candidates don’t want to be challenged and the campaigns dictate the format, which is designed to limit surprises. That’s why most viewers and analysts ignore what the candidates say and latch on to unscripted moments because they might hint at something real. People are still talking about Richard Nixon’s sweaty lip, Al Gore’s sighs and what it meant when George H.W. Bush looked at his watch. 

More people were wondering why Pence didn’t swat that fly that perched on his head for two minutes than why he refused to say whether he would peacefully accept the election results.

Trump trashed the first debate, and now he’s refusing to participate in the second one because no one wants to be in the same room with him while he has COVID. The debate commission said this week’s event would be held virtually, but that won’t work for Trump. As he explained to Fox Business, that way the moderator could “cut you off whenever they want.” 

The three-debate tradition is broken, and let’s not clamor to bring it back. What should take its place? If you want to be really revolutionary, we could make politicians go back to giving speeches.

Presidents don’t debate in real life, but being able to deliver a coherent argument in defense of a position is actually an important part of the job. Speeches are how leaders set a course and get everyone moving in the same direction. And even when they are written by staff, they reveal a lot about the person speaking – their values and their understanding of the world.

Candidates used to travel around the country giving speeches, and they would attract crowds and get covered in the news. Somehow we got convinced that a candidate’s ability to spit out memorized two-minute answers on a debate stage is somehow more spontaneous and informative.

The debate is dead. Bring back the speech.

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