The Decline of the Modern Presidential Debate

Leading up to the end of October in 1984, Kansas City had gained notable news coverage. The much anticipated event had finally come: the first presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Reagan had endured an arduous, yet fruitful four years in office previously. Now Mondale, the former vice president under Jimmy Carter, challenged him to the office in the heart of Missouri. 

During the debate, the moderator gave the floor to Henry Trewhitt, a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Trewhitt proceeded to highlight how Reagan, at that time, was the oldest president to ever assume the Oval Office. He then asked, with questionable subtly, whether Reagan would be able to handle the rigors of office.

Reagan, adopting his trademark smooth and rustic charm, swiftly responded: “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.”

The auditorium erupted in laughter and applause as Reagan coolly took a sip from a glass of water. Even Mondale could not help his wide smile.

The response, of course, was not an insult to his opponent. Although Mondale was younger, he was still fifty-six, hardly the age one would describe as “youthful”. Rather, Reagan’s comment was a witty yet subtle rebuke to Trewhitt and other critics’ opinions over his age.

Presidential debates should be about how each candidate addresses political issues that have a strong bearing on the public mind. Impoverishment and economic reform, infrastructure and taxes, climate change and environmental guidelines – their solutions to these issues are what make presidential debates important to the nation. 

But we must admit that on occasion, we indulge in witty soundbites or clever jokes. Instances like these lighten up the debate with chuckles or grins, a brief solace from the difficult issues at hand. In other words, such witty comments work best when they are both subtle and apt.

“Subtle” and “apt” are among the last words I would use to describe our most recent presidential debate. 

Jarring and chaotic would be more fitting. Our last “presidential” debate was not so presidential. Rather than being the pinnacle of political debate in America, it was more reminiscent of a verbal boxing match between two spiteful rivals.

The moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, did his best to steer the debate by bringing up relevant topics and issues in America. But he could hardly control the conversation with the number of interruptions, insults, and off-topic rebuttals that came from both candidates. 

Instead of focusing mainly on important political issues, the candidates seemed adamant on creating those “witty retorts” – or rather, outright insults.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was focused on discrediting President Donald Trump in the eyes of the American public. At one point, he turned forward and spoke directly to the camera: “you know you don’t trust him,” he said, in an unsubtle attempt to appeal to the viewers. Towards the end of the debate, Biden made a bold claim of stating that the current presidency has left America “weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent” without any preface.

Of course, Trump was not wholly innocent in this divisive exchange. He took to commenting on Biden’s intelligence, stating “there is nothing smart about you, Joe,” then proceeding to claim that he graduated bottom of his class. Trump also made a bold assertion near the end of the debate, stating how Biden had absolutely no support from law enforcement.

Those were but a few examples of how courtesy and decorum slowly dissolved throughout the debate. After the event, initial reactions from pundits were centered less on how the candidates responded to the moderator’s prompts, but more about how the pair got at each other’s throats. 

Ultimately, the civil witticism that once underlaid presidential debates was brought to an end on that night.

But can we actually be surprised?

As a whole, we have already made up our minds. We have already decided our views on these issues, already affirmed our position on their solutions. But we have also closed off our minds to the ideas and opinions of the other side.

The presidential debate stage represents the most popular political opinions and ideas in our nation. These candidates represent the ideas of millions, and to see them debate each other is a symbolic embodiment of having the opposite political opinions we share challenge themselves on a physical stage. 

Of course, we are not obligated to accept the differing political views of the other side. But we should be expected to approach them with at least an open mind. 

But current discourse has seen a worrying decline of tolerance for opposing views, and the effects of this could be seen in our last presidential debate. Rather than being a podium for civil and sincere discourse, the debate was more like a rowdy sports stadium, with loud fans trying to drown out each other with jeers and heckles from either side, with little intent of watching the game. 

The presidential debate should be more than a series of jeers and heckles. It should be less about which candidate has the more amusing soundbites, or the better insults. Instead, keep the witticism sharp and subtle, and focus more on the issues that Americans sincerely care about. 

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