The debate debacles

Lexi Schnaser—Staff Writer

Contributed Photos

As the presidential race reaches its climax each election cycle, debates between the candidates become a major focal point for the American public.

It seems the presidential debates are not serving their purpose. Most debates do not look like the interruptions and disrespect the nation observed in this year’s first presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on September 29th.

No matter the contention, Professor of Political Science Jeff Taylor says it benefits all the American people to hear from candidates directly.

“I think when you have a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates you get to see them in real time responding to the same question and get to see some of their personality,” Taylor said.

The current debates have turned into another platform for candidates to give speeches, instead of a place for candidates to think on their feet, present original thought, and challenge one another. Also gone, is the level of respect between the debaters.

But “The purpose of the debate doesn’t really seem very clear,” Bruce Kuiper, professor of communications and debate coach, said.

Donald Roth, a criminal justice professor, says most candidates already have prepared speeches on certain topics before they reach the debate stage and are looking for a chance to give that speech rather than answer a question. He compared the prepared speeches to cans of soup on a shelf, where candidates simply take the can of soup off the shelf and put it on the stove instead of making their own soup from scratch.

“How can I go and peel open this can, pour out this speech, and heat it up? SpaghettiOs are a comfort food, but not the most nutritious food out there. That is kind of what you get out of the speeches in the debates. It’s not fresh. It doesn’t always feel that authentic,” Roth said.

When these presidential debates devolve into just another campaign event, then the rules of debate themselves start to break down.

“It’s about soundbites and it’s about posturing a lot more than its about persuasion or actual debate,” Roth said.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during the Senate race in 1858 helped provide the framework that led to the formal presidential debates of today. The Institute says these debates “helped establish the precedent that candidates should present their cases, state their criticisms before the public, and engage in a constructive dialogue with each other about the future course of the nation.”

After the 1984 election, the Commission of Presidential Debates was formed to “ensure that the voting public has the opportunity to see the leading candidates debate during the general election campaign.” 

The founders of the CPD thought it was important to allow the voting public to see the leading candidates engage in educational debates.

With all this in mind, this year’s presidential debates look different than past years. The lack of traditional debate techniques is not a partisan issue, but an issue we can keep in mind as we watch political debates at all levels.

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