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THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, WHAT DEBATE?

Deyan Ranko Brashich

Debate: “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward” – the oxford dictionary

On Monday 84.4 million Americans watched something that was billed as a “Presidential Debate”. It is still fresh your mind so I won’t give you my take on that sorry spectacle. It was a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” between two apparently sentient life forms but it was not a debate as defined by the dictionary.

„America doesn’t really have presidential debates. Instead, we have joint appearances where candidates recite talking points in settings so carefully controlled by party apparatchiks that the only real wrangling is over the height of the lecterns and the temperature of the drinking water. As with so many other aspects of the political process, debates that should be enlightening, perhaps even transformational, are instead stage-managed to satisfy the demands of power brokers with money and connections rather than the needs of democracy“ was written with prescience just before the first 2012 televised presidential meet and greet encounter between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

The format of what passes as a presidential debate has not changed in the last four years. The “debates” are sponsored, controlled and produced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a not-for-profit private organization controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties, the operative word being produced as in movies, theatre and show business, with show business being the dominant impetus. The “debate” is financed by private contributions from individuals and corporations whose influence is unchecked and uncheckable.

The Commission does not have a government sanctioned mandate, nor is it government sponsored. It came into being after the non-partisan League of Women Voters refused to participate in what had become pre-packaged political charades with the presidential candidates making secret undisclosed side agreements as to how to manage and produce the presidential debates show.

 

linkolnReal Debates: The Lincoln-Douglas Great Debates of 1858Ottawa August 21, Freeport August 27, Jonesboro September 15, Charleston September 18, Galesburg October 7, Quincy October 13 and Alton October 15, 1858 – Debates that altered history. Image courtesy Virginia Tech.

That secret “memorandum of understanding” between the Democrats and Republicans limited who would be allowed to participate much in the way the two political parties have excluded third party candidates from the political arena. The memorandum chose the panelists who would pose the questions, the issues to be covered and controlled other aspects of the debate including the “height of the lecterns”. The League of Women Voters rejected this format for this “would perpetuate a fraud on the American voter”.

Monday’s debate was run with rules that were brokered and agreed upon by the candidates without checks and balances – the rules were few sadly lacking in content, without clear directions and without any enforcement provisions. So while they made the rules they were free to flaunt them, which they did in spades.

Yet we allow them to perpetuate this fraud upon us, year after year, election after election – shame on us.

A debate can turn into a free for all, a shouting match. That’s why you have a moderator. But if a moderator fails to moderate, to put the debaters to the test, to force them to address the issues, to answer the question, then all is lost. Last Monday Hillary and The Donald both flouted the rules, talked over the moderator, interrupted each other, The Donald more so than Hillary. When either candidate failed to answer the question or address the issue the moderator gave them a free pass. The moderator Lester Holt was as useful as a tit on a bull and generally did nothing to further a true dictionary defined debate.

So as anticipated and predicted we had the candidates reciting abridged version of their stump speech, this time at each other. There were talking points galore. The Donald went on about jobs, and making corporations bring back jobs that had been lost to globalization. When pressed as to how he would repatriate jobs he tacked left and spoke of encouraging corporation to remain by lowering the federal corporate income tax sidestepping the issue. Just another non-answer answer.

No matter what issue was being addressed The Donald kept returning to his cobbled together theme that America had been robbed, rooked, flimflammed, sold down the river, betrayed, bamboozled, eviscerated, threatened, weak, unprepared, ill managed, badly led, lied to. N the very same breath he promised that he would make her great once again, that all of her ills, fears and shortcomings would be healed and solved by his Messianic ascendency to the Presidency.

Hillary stuck steadfast to her talking points maintaining the political status quo with the current establishment firmly in control paying lip service to change. A fairer tax system; an economy that works for everyone; equal pay for all; a refurbished infrastructure; overhaul of the criminal justice system; &tc. &tc, &tc, you heard it all before.

The so-called debate was visual, visceral and embarrassingly non-verbal. Words, while many, meant little in this forum; they were just part of campaign promises never meant to be binding. News organizations have come to understand that it is the candidates’ body language that determines elections. They have commissioned studies on the subject and The New York Times published an article by a reporter who watched the televised debate with the sound turned off.

Hillary Clinton maintained a bemused, stoic façade showing little human emotion while The Donald “delivered 90 minutes of increasingly exaggerated pantomime.” As the Times noted “Mr. Trump is loud even with the sound off … He smirked. He grimaced. He squinted … He rocked back and forth on his heels … He pursed his lips. He threw his opponent a disbelieving glance and then an eye roll. He shook his head. He appeared to interrupt her, repeatedly. (On one occasion, I could make out a word – a word! – “wrong.”) An ill-mannered child in serious need of discipline.

The candidates talked but they did not debate. The failure of the debate was clearly the format and the moderator’s fault. If a candidate just talks, doesn’t answer the question, you shut him down, shut him up, cut him off. If the candidate interrupts or interjects, you warn him/her; if she/he persists you usher him/her off the stage. Otherwise you just get a joint photo-op with sound. You did not get much meat or substance from the Hofstra debate, just more words and a waste of time.

 

Deyan Ranko Brashich is a contributor writing from New York. He is the author of Letters from America, Contrary Views and Dispatches. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com

 

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