Our Long National Debate Nightmare is Over

Until the public demands better, the puppet show will go on.

SOURCECampaign for America's Future
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“No, you’re the puppet!”

Well, that was grueling. How did the third and final debate manage to be so sensationalistic and yet at the same time so boring? It seemed to go on forever.

The media declared that Donald Trump lost the debate the moment he refused to promise he’d accept the election outcome, saying “I will keep you in suspense, okay?” But they couched their outrage in the warm, soft glow of insular self-satisfaction. There are deep problems with our democracy, and with the journalistic profession that is supposed to serve it.

Trump’s statement wasn’t outrageous because it violated Beltway decorum. It was outrageous because it was an incitement to racial hatred. Neither moderator Chris Wallace nor the commentators afterward explored the racist subtext behind it: the notion that people of color, especially in the inner cities, are “stealing” elections through voter fraud.

It is “so important that you watch other communities,” Trump told a mostly-white crowd recently, “because we don’t want this election stolen from us.”

Other communities. We. Us. “Everybody knows what I’m talking about,” Trump said. Yes, we do, Donald.

It was surprising to hear reporters say that they’d considered the debate a draw until that moment. That’s not grading on a curve. It’s grading on a cliff – the one we’re being led over by a political/media complex that treats politics like a game and elections like a half-time show.

It’s “demotainment” – democracy as entertainment – and what it failed to provide in substance was made up for in a series of stroboscopically flashy moments:

The families that wouldn’t shake hands.

The candidates that wouldn’t shake hands.

The choice of guests designed to “get into the other candidate’s head.” (The one that would’ve thrown me was Trump invitee Wayne Newton. If I were Clinton I’d have spent the entire night worried he might start singing “Danke Schoen.”)

Clinton, unable to defend her plan for a Syrian “no-fly zone” and hastily pivoting to other topics.

Trump saying, “If we could run our country the way I’ve run my company … you would even be proud of it.” (That was a lost chance for her to say, “I am proud of it. That’s the difference between us.”)

“Bad hombres,” which sounds like the name of a punk band. (But then, watching Trump’s VP pick before the debate, I thought “Mike Pence’s Scowl” would make a good punk band name too.)

Clinton saying, “I … will not add a penny to the national debt.” That’s too bad, because this is the ideal time to take on debt in order to invest in jobs and growth.

Trump, scoring a point by talking about “ad after false ad, all paid for by your friends on Wall Street.”

To her credit, Clinton tried to bring it back to the issues at one point, saying

“I want us to have the biggest jobs program since World War II, jobs in infrastructure and advanced manufacturing … new jobs and clean energy … to do more to help small business. That’s where two thirds of the new jobs are going to come from.

“I want us to raise the national minimum wage because people who live in poverty, who work full-time, should not still be in poverty and I sure do want to make sure women get equal pay for the work we do.”

That was a strong and progressive pitch – but it was over in a moment. And Clinton spent far too much time delivering scripted lines like “Vladimir Putin would rather have a puppet in the White House than a president,” a Russia-baiting approach that does nothing to address voters’ issues – and is likely to prove corrosive in the long run.

(“No, you’re the puppet,” said Trump, making him the first presidential candidate in history who can be pictured saying, “I’m rubber and you’re glue …”)

It was a devastating moment when Clinton repeated Trump’s words about women and talked about how degrading they were. (Although, regrettably, she ended that portion of her comments with the pre-scripted, already-used line that “America is great because America is good.”)

Trump, spurred on by moderator Chris Wallace’s use of the inflammatory phrase “partial birth,” used graphic language to describe abortions, but Clinton’s defense of reproductive rights was strong and compelling.

Trump then deployed flawed pro-gun logic when he suggested that Chicago has “the toughest (gun) laws and you have tremendous gun violence.” Hospitals have more doctors and more sick people, but doctors don’t cause illness. Correlation is not causation.

Clinton, who spent the primary season bashing Bernie Sanders over guns, tacked back to the right on the subject. Clinton said ”I respect the Second Amendment” and “I … believe there is individual right to bear arms, ”adding “that is not in conflict with sensible commonsense regulation.”

Then Trump said, “such a nasty woman.” The phrase will haunt him, and that moment may prove even more devastating than his election comments.

But moments like these are just that: moments, without much meaning. They’re flash photos, jump cuts, shooting stars in an attention-deficit media universe. They’re never fully explored or explained, just left to linger as afterimages on instant replay.

Clinton and Trump had three ninety-minute debates. That’s four and half hours altogether.

Four and a half hours with no detailed discussion of economic inequality.

Four and a half hours with no in-depth talk about long-term unemployment, under-employment, or stagnant wages.

Four and half hours without exploring the generation-crushing burden of student debt, or the retirement crisis faced by millions of aging Americans.

Four and a half hours without discussing the kinds of medical and family leave benefits in other developed countries.

And four and a half hours with no questions about climate change – a crisis that threatens all humanity and the planet itself, a crisis that’s already having a devastating effect on everything from the economy to national security.

Instead, Wallace used the debate platform to mislead. He falsely claimed that “the Obama stimulus plan,” rather than Republican spending cuts, “has led to the slowest GDP growth since 1949.”

Wallace also cited the work of a highly biased organization called the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget – not once, but twice – on government debt, Medicare and Social Security. That group is part of a network of front organizations funded by right-wing billionaire Peter G. “Pete” Peterson and other Wall Street and corporate sources.

They claim to be “bipartisan,” supporting corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans. But they invariably wind up pushing fiscal policies (like Social Security benefit cuts) that hurt the 99 percent, while downplaying or ignoring solutions (like lifting the payroll tax cap on Social Security) that discomfit the extremely wealthy.

These big-money groups got their money’s worth on Wednesday night.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes these events, has no reason to press candidates on challenging issues. Created jointly by the Democratic and Republican parties, it has historically been funded by corporate sponsors and other wealthy donors. The Commission does not represent voters and has no public charter. It’s designed to preserve a media monopoly for both parties, not to broaden political discourse or serve the public interest.

It’s time for the Commission on Public Debates to go.

A media circus was inevitable once Trump became the Republican nominee, and many people will be glad to see this campaign draw to a close. Donald Trump will probably never grace a national debate stage again, so there’s that. But national campaigns, and the media’s coverage of them, have been shortchanging voters for a long time. That’s not likely to change.

Until the public demands better, the puppet show will go on.

Let Third Parties Debate: Lower the Polling Limit Requirement


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