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Dugger writes: "The presidential debates on our national TV networks fail as debates. Rather than structured debates conducted among the candidates, they are press conferences controlled by who the reporters call on when, and by their questions."

Candidates from the Democratic debates. (photo: TheWrap/Getty Images)
Candidates from the Democratic debates. (photo: TheWrap/Getty Images)

The "Presidential Debates" Are Not Debates

By Ronnie Dugger, Reader Supported News

10 September 19


he presidential debates on our national TV networks fail as debates. Rather than structured debates conducted among the candidates, they are press conferences controlled by who the reporters call on when, and by their questions. The candidates, in their answers or later refutations, are strictly limited, often by aggressive interruption, to one minute or 30 seconds each, respectively. Instead of the candidates presenting what they believe and will try to do if elected, reporters tell the candidates what they should talk about in their permitted short replies. So far this summer, the overall outcomes of these disorganized events are usually chaotic and confused, with candidates often interrupting reporters’ control in place of getting called on. 

The League of Women Voters, the totally non-political local-and-national civics organization, used to conduct our formal presidential debates, but when they stopped doing that the networks took their place. The event with the ten Democratic candidates in Houston, if in pattern, is not a real presidential TV debate on our publicly-owned airways, of which the networks and the press have deprived the American people now for decades. Giving the reporters and the networks the real control of “the presidential debates” abuses the citizenry and structurally destroys, probably partisanizes, and therefore weakens our national politics and elections.

Having watched these events since Adlai versus Ike, in more recent decades I have been astounded by the humiliations of our candidates for our highest office. I first realized what had happened when I saw on TV that the reporters in one of the network “debates” were permitting President George W. Bush only one minute to answer their questions. Here we are decades later with TV journalist Jake Tapper doing the same thing to Bernie Sanders and three or four other of the Democrats’ candidates now, asking him and them the same one question about “taxing middle-class Americans” for “Medicare for All,” provoking Sanders to reach through his one-minute time-cell to retort, “Jake,” that he had asked a Republican question that would cause the GOP to celebrate.

With the candidates named “the debaters” in these press conferences, in minimum honesty the first fix we might make is to call these events what they really are, not debates. But that is just calling a press conference what it is instead of what it isn’t. What we need for democracy is to restore the journalism-seized event to what it should be, a serious discussion and debate among the candidates for the most powerful job in the world, the American presidency.

I know about debating. In the two-debaters-versus-two in school and university systems, my debate partners and I won the San Antonio citywide high school debate competitions one year and won for the University of Texas two collegiate national championships, and I debated in the Oxford Union when I was there. The candidates in a real debate should agree in advance on both its subject or nature and rules. The only things the hosts or sponsors and the chair should do are preside, introduce the debaters, and enforce the rules they have agreed on.

For Thursday, the candidates being now the top ten contenders for the Democratic nomination, I suggest, for examples, that as many of them as can should meet or confer by phone ahead of time to plan the debate rules. They could decide by lot the order of speakers and demand and require, if prevailing, that in the three-hour, 180-minute debate, every one of them first get, let’s say, ten minutes to present their cases against Trump and for themselves and the Democrats, then five minutes refuting the others, and then three more minutes to close. That’s 180 minutes and a real debate among the people seeking our votes to get the powers of our president.

If such a switch back to real debating couldn’t be made for Thursday night, it could be for the next debate in October and those that follow. Depending on the future situations, such as how many candidates still satisfy the toughening rules for the Democratic Party’s controlled series of debates, a four-person debate might be done one night with the top-ranked four candidates, with a second night’s debate among the rest. 

After the two major parties have their candidates for president nominated, in my opinion any new networks or other organizations sponsoring debates between the two should have to agree in advance with the candidates themselves (not their parties or reporters or presiders) on the when, the where, the order of the debaters, and the timing.

The very successful seven-hour town hall about climate change that has recently occurred suggests a method for further substantial debate among the candidates, perhaps including those knocked off TV by the Democratic Party’s rules. Quite apart from the Democrats’ schedule, for these events, candidates in groupings of their choosing could arrange their own additional debates, for broadcast on whatever networks agreed, on additional dominating issues, where logical with candidates taking either pro or con sides. Just for more examples, I have drafted seven additional such topics for the Democratic candidates.

“Resolved, that Donald Trump should be impeached by the House and convicted and ejected from the White House by the Senate, and, should he not yet have been ejected from office by the Senate, defeated for re-election.”

“Resolved, that to correct the shocking and criminal financial inequality in our country, Congress should immediately double the minimum wage, enact laws requiring workers’ secret voting on forming unions where they work in places of business larger than a specified number of employees, legalize postcard voting on establishing unions, criminalize corporations or employers who fire or discriminate against workers for seeking to organize unions, and require that half of the board members of all major corporations and financial institutions be selected by and from the workers employed by them either as employees or ‘independent workers.’”

“Resolved, that the Republicans’ huge recent tax cut for the rich and the corporations should be killed and a wealth tax and/or new steeply-graduated taxes on the rich enacted.”

“Resolved, that Medicare for All, at least in part funded by repeal of the recent Trump-GOP tax cuts for the super-wealthy, a new wealth tax, and other higher taxes on the rich, should be enacted,” possibly adding to this topic, “with a transitional continuing option of private insurance for those who still want it.”

“Resolved, that the United Nations should abolish the veto or else soon be superseded by the establishment, including the best UN features, of a world democratic federation in every member nation based on one person, one vote.”

“Resolved, that the United States should lead nations, instead of opposing them as it has, by voting for and ratifying the United Nations treaty already enacted by 122 nations in 2017 in the General Assembly which prohibits, outlaws, and  criminalizes the manufacture, ownership, threat to use, or use of nuclear weapons.”

“Resolved, that when the head and leaders of the government of a nation declare and wage a clear and definite war of aggression, the head and war-responsible leaders of that government shall be convicted of capital mass murder and imprisoned for life without parole.”

You could come up with another seven. And any debate proposition can be reworded to favor or oppose different opinions or outcomes.

The grossest blunder in 2016 and this year has been having, last time, 17 candidates and, this time, two dozen, absurdly permitting press grilling of, then, 17, and now, ten twice. But the long-standing institutional offense of the networks’ and journalism’s takeover and destruction of the presidential debates is calling press conferences among the time-denied candidates serious debates and thereby denying those serious debates to the citizens of the United States. 

If the League of Women Voters won’t come back and conduct these debates again, who can match the League’s exact qualification for that task? The ACLU? Not with the Republicans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Not with the Democrats. Here in Austin, where I live, the League of Women Voters is now going into high school classes to educate and interest the students about their voting rights and the issues before us all. I wish they would decide nationally to take back the job they once did so well.

Ronnie Dugger, a presidential biographer and winner of the 2011 George Polk lifetime career reward, was founding editor of The Texas Observer, has also written books on Hiroshima and universities, and has published many articles in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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