If You Already Hated Presidential Debates, Wait Til Next Week!

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Ed. Note: Nicole Lafond will be back to helming Where Things Stand soon.

Next week, the 2024 presidential campaign will hit one of its predictable low points. The two major party nominees will meet in a nationally televised debate — and everything we know from watching these two men in public life for the last 40-50 years and our lived experience of their presidencies for the past nearly eight years will be thrown out window.

Instead, we’ll get theater criticism divorced from politics or policy. We’ll watch as their age and cognitive abilities are assessed. We’ll have gaffe counters and word clouds and assorted other gimmicks to try to imbue the event with meaning and significance after the substance has been stripped away. Whose one-liners and quips will win the day?

You can blame the demands and conventions of TV broadcasts, or the debate moderators, or the “low information” voters the debates seek to reach. You can blame the press corps for over-investing in these packaged events, duplicating for their readers and viewers the same basic coverage that every other outlet is providing. You can blame partisans who pin their energy and enthusiasm for their candidate on something as fickle as a debate.

None of what I’m describing was any less true in 2020 or 2016 or 2008 or 2000. But it comes around again in 2024 with a particularly jarring level of discordance. We know so much about each candidate. No one is really in an information vacuum. The terms of the debate are so vastly different not just from past years but between the candidates themselves. This isn’t about Social Security lock boxes or tax cuts or health care policy.

It’s about the existential questions facing democracy, and I’m not sure there’s any way for a debate to capture that. Ponder, for instance, the normal kind of gotcha questions that moderators will pepper a candidate with. Do you promise to veto a nationwide abortion ban? Will you let the Trump tax cuts expire? Will you cede Ukraine to Russia? Fair questions applicable to the current moment, but they don’t come close to capturing the dynamic of this race.

Will you promise to abide by the results of the election or will you unleash violence against election workers to try to tilt the election your way? If you win in 2024, will you relinquish office at the end of your second term in accordance with the Constitution? These are legit questions, but they’re not likely to be asked, and, frankly, even if they are, I’m not sure the world’s best moderator can pivot from the “Trump, let’s explore the extent of your authoritarianism” questions to the more normal policy-specific questions for Biden without the whole artificial edifice constructed for the debate tumbling down — or at least giving the moderator a migraine.

All of which is to say that this year’s debates, more than in any other cycle, are not up to the task. Trump in word and deed undermines the entire premise of having open, transparent, public debates. The man incited a coup attempt against his own government to remain in power. He’s vowed if re-elected to abuse the powers of his office and leverage the criminal justice system to go after his enemies and reward his friends. How do you debate that?

So what does that leave us with? Sadly, it’s a set up perfectly suited to Trump’s skill set. Trump, the reality TV performer, uses these moments to perform. In a political news environment in which TV performance is the most valued currency, Trump puts on a show. How bad can it all be — his criminal conviction, his liability for sexual assault and civil fraud, his anti-democratic impulses — if he’s up there on stage carrying on without a care in the world?

The same old presidential debate format (with some minor changes this year) conveys a normalcy we don’t have the luxury of enjoying. In the moment, the message will be that everything is perfectly normal. See, we’re having a presidential debate? It’s fiiine. Don’t worry.

The Best Of TPM Today

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The 1990s Were Weirder Than You Think. We’re Feeling the Effects. – Jennifer Szalai

Latest Where Things Stand

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for tao tao says:

    Gee, I rather like to see and hear these two guys swapping paint and playing bumper tag. One ot them doesn’t drive; you know. Joe will be constrained to speaking truth. The other guy, not at all.

  2. Interesting new “Hive” format. Could be useful!

    This isn’t my pair, but that’s what they look like:

  3. Not sure how you managed to make the first comment on this thread, but great job! Care to share your secret?

  4. I got there by clicking on a link that @justruss posted in their comment on Site Maintenance Saturday.

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