Election season is upon us, seemingly minutes after the last one ended. Early voting has begun in my neck of the woods. You can’t miss the landscape-littering signs and TV ads featuring gun-totin’ millionaires wearing plaid shirts because they’re just regular folks like us.
As annoying as the campaign process can be, I do love the debates.
During the debates, the candidates are stripped of their handlers, their consultants, and their scripts. We get to see how quickly they can think on their feet. We learn how they handle face-to-face criticism. More than in any other setting, we get a hint of who they truly are. Do they answer tough questions accurately? Do they have a firm grasp of history? Can they handle a challenge without resorting to petty insults? It’s like test driving a car. The commercials make it look smooth and sleek. But how does it perform in the rain or on rough terrain? A good debate reveals what’s really under the hood.
I was a child of politics. I got to know all the candidates in my county at my family’s general store, and my dad later became a county commissioner. I attended every political rally, made scrapbooks of the newspaper stories about each campaign, and looked forward to presidential debates even more than the Super Bowl.
Having moderated many debates in my broadcast career, I have dealt with the over-protective handlers. “May we see the questions in advance?” Uh, no. “Can my candidate have the first word, and the last word?” One, but not both.
The most troubling of all is, “Our candidate is far ahead in our polling. So we have chosen not to participate in any debate because we can see no benefit in doing so.” This happens on the state and national level, and has trickled down to city and county races as well. One might argue this is smart politics. Why take the chance that Mayor Huffandpuff might say something stupid, and blow a big lead? The campaign manager takes the view that his candidate has everything to lose, and nothing to gain. They would rather flood the airwaves with the glossy image they wish to portray, limit the candidate to a few friendly photo ops, and then sit back and count the votes.
In today’s gerrymandered political landscape, the strategy usually works. Incumbents, or candidates who are tethered to a popular president or governor, refuse to debate or even hold a town meeting once they’re in office.
In my perfect world, all candidates for county leadership, statewide office, or the U.S. House or Senate would be required to participate in at least one debate in both the primary and general elections. Once elected, they would have to hold at least one publicized and “open to everyone” town meeting in the geographical center of their district each year. If not, they forfeit their seat.
In recent years, not all debates have been civil or even useful. The childish, offensive first debate of the 2020 presidential campaign was an embarrassment. Whether you blamed “Bully Trump,” “Sleepy Joe,” or “Cranky Chris Wallace,” it became the low bar we hope to never reach again.
The morning after that disaster, a co-worker in his early 20s asked me if presidential debates had always been like that. “Nope,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Not that many years ago, one candidate spoke, while the other one listened. Then it was the other person’s turn. Occasionally there would be a clever, memorable response, like Ronald Reagan’s 1984 comeback to Walter Mondale’s concern about his advanced age (73): “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.”
In 1992, Admiral James Stockdale’s opening remarks during a vice-presidential debate got our attention. He was Ross Perot’s running mate, and he echoed the thoughts of many viewers when he blurted out, “Who am I? And why am I here?”
Perhaps that wasn’t the ideal opening statement, but at least he showed up. In my opinion, any major candidate who is not “here” for the debate will be absent from my ballot as well.
David Carroll is a Chattanooga TV news anchor.