"The League of Uninformed Voters presents the Springfield Mayoral Debates, I'm your moderator Larry King. Now, a word to our audience. Even though we're being broadcast on FOX, there's no need for obnoxious hooting and hollering." - Larry King
There has been much lamenting and rending of garments over the low substance and feculent quality of this year's Presidential debates. Much of this commentary has focused on the nonsensical babble of one Donald John Trump, Republican Nominee(TM). And that's understandable. From substantive offenses like denying the legitimacy of an election that hasn't happened yet and promising to lock up his opponent if he wins down to trivialities like his constant interruptions and sniffles, Trump *always* provides something to talk about.
But the sad reality is that the 2016 debates weren't outliers, they were typical. The 2012 debates were just as vapid. The 2008 debates were just as irrelevant to what people actually care about. Go back twenty years or more and you'll see the same amount of style over substance, the same fact free and outright false claims flying out to tens of millions of voters. To understand why, please allow me three quick paragraphs of background.
1) After the 1960 debate that is widely credited with having cost Nixon the election, there were no debates until 1976. After Watergate left no doubt that Nixon was just as sleazy as he had looked on TV in 1960, the League of Women Voters came along and tried to rinse his stains away with honesty and transparency. They sponsored three televised Presidential debates and a Vice-Presidential undercard, each one hosted by a different moderator and featuring a different panel of print and television reporters. That first year, moderators and panelists represented the following news organizations: NBC News, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker(!), NPR, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun Times, Newsweek, and the Associated Press.
2) While not perfect, this system worked quite well. Substantive questions were asked on a wide variety of topics, and the panelists and moderators were mostly working reporters, not mega-bucks TV celebrities. The debates quickly developed into a civic ritual. Tens of millions of people watched them, and they became the one chance ordinary voters got to see their potential leaders live and unscripted.
3) However, the Republican and Democratic parties quickly realized that the non-partisan do gooders at the LWV had created a media spectacle that was beyond their control. And so, in 1988, they decided to tamper with this fine system and create the Commission on Presidential Debates, a front group that allowed both parties to shape the debates to their liking. The LWV pulled out, calling the new debates, "a fraud on the American voter" that would be, "campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions".
For a couple of elections, the kneecapped debates hobbled along in something like their old format even as TV gimmicks (no panelists! audience questions only!) gradually eroded the discussions. By 1996, the parties had neutered this once grand idea by completely removing the working reporters and letting all the debates be moderated by a single, elderly TV celebrity, Jim Lehrer of PBS. (He was so inoffensive that they let him do all three Presidential debates in 2000 as well.) No more reporters, no more tough questions, no more diversity of opinions or topics, just TV fluff dressed up as serious debate.
Yesterday, David Leonhardt of The New York Times published a list of the number of times different topics were asked across this year's four exercises in public futility. For simplicity, I've combined them into categories:
Sensational Stuff the Media Loves: 25 - (Trump’s taxes: 3, Trump’s molestations: 3, Clinton’s emails: 2, National debt: 2, Uniting the country: 2, Birtherism: 1, Cyberterrorism: 1, Clinton Foundation: 1, Trump Foundation: 1, Opponent's strengths: 1, V.P. nominees’ skills: 1, Candidates’ faith: 1, Candidates' low favorability: 1, Clinton’s paid speeches: 1, Basket of deplorables: 1, Trump’s tweets: 1, Clinton's 'look': 1, Candidates' behavior: 1,)
Actual Issues Voters Care About: 20 - (Immigration: 3, Job creation: 3, Supreme Court: 2, Social Security: 2, Taxes on wealthy: 2, Obamacare: 2, Expectations of police: 1, Race relations: 1, Abortion: 1, Guns: 1, Energy jobs: 1, Islamophobia: 1)
Scary Stuff Abroad: 16 - (Syrian civil war: 6, Terrorism: 4, Russia: 3, Iraq: 2,)
Important Stuff That Doesn't Fit a Category: 4 - (Nuclear weapons: 2, Election's legitimacy: 2)
Climate Change: 0
First of all, let's have a good laugh that there's even a category called "Trump's molestations". Second, let's remember that for the most part these questions have nothing to do with Trump as a candidate. This is what the moderators, who were hand picked by the Democratic and Republican parties, considered good and proper topics for discussion.
Now take a gander at the Pew Research survey at right about what topics Americans say are "very important" to them in this year's election. Even being generous with the categories above, we see that the moderators (and the "undecided" voter questions they selected) spent most of their time asking about things a majority of Americans do not consider worthwhile while ignoring matters about which the electorate cares a great deal.
Substantive issues like Supreme Court picks and Social Security got the same amount of attention as media trivialities like "Uniting the country". Or take Syria, a legitimate issue, but surely one that is not as important to the American electorate as Immigration, Race Relations, Abortion, and Gun Control combined. According to Pew, 40% of the country thinks LGBT treatment is very important, it didn't come up once. The "environment" is very important to 52% of Americans. It also got zero mentions.
Presidential debates have been a regular feature of our elections since before most Americans were born. We expect them, and we like them. They routinely draw ratings figures that can only be compared to the Super Bowl. And yet this sacred civic ritual has been surrendered to multi-millionaire television celebrities who ask about trivia.
Trump is a disgrace, but he didn't bring the debates low. They were already as dumb as any reality show he's ever hosted.
If we want to make the debates meaningful again, we need to go back to having a panel of reporters from many different news outlets. We need to banish the Republican and Democratic parties from any say in the moderators or the questions. And we need to put things back in the hands of the League of Women Voters.