Presidential general election debates are not inevitable. Our nation got along fine without them until 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon contended on national television for the first time. There were no debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972, largely because sitting presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon declined to take on challengers.
Indeed, in December President Donald Trump, expressing his dissatisfaction with the Commission on Presidential Debates, hinted that he might sit out the presidential debates this year.
He might be on to a sensible idea. Maybe 2020 would be a good year to skip the presidential debates altogether.
I’d miss them. One reason I favored Pete Buttigieg for the Democratic nomination was the prospect of a debate between the mayor and the president. Buttigieg’s calm, deliberate demeanor and his expository style — he talks in sentences and paragraphs — would contrast sharply with Trump’s bluster and swagger and his patterns of language, which often shade into semi-incoherence.
Such a debate would have been interesting, but would it have been informative? Speech-making is a presidential skill, but debating is not. And even speech-making isn’t as vital to a president as other skills and qualities — thoughtfulness, leadership, patience and cooperation, for example — which are not necessarily demonstrated in a debate.
Besides, the modern debate format, designed for television and the modern mind, is not conducive to a thoughtful exchange of ideas or an appreciation for their comparative value.
The great prototype for political debate in our nation is the contest between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln during the race for U.S. senator from Illinois in 1858. Throughout a series of seven debates, the first speaker was allotted an hour to make his case. His opponent responded for 90 minutes, followed by a half-hour rebuttal from the first speaker. No moderators, no commercials, no silly questions, interruptions or cross-talk.
We would never tolerate this sort of extended discourse today. The modern format — 90 seconds for answers, 45 seconds for rebuttal and so on — serves our national sensibility and attention span, but, unfortunately, not much else.
Given the questionable value of presidential debates, do we really need them, anyway, in this particularly polarized year? Haven’t the people largely made up their minds already?
Whether Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden is ultimately nominated by the Democrats, the difference between the two of them is small compared to the difference between both of them and their presidential opponent. Citizens will not be choosing between a conservative and a liberal approach to governance. Particularly if the nominee is Biden, Americans will be choosing between our traditional understanding of American values and norms, on one hand, and an administration characterized by contempt for the traditional political infrastructure of our republic, on the other.
Of course, taking a pass on a presidential debate involves political cost. But Trump has already suggested the possibility. And the most likely Democratic candidate at present, Biden, isn’t a strong debater, which probably indicates very little about what kind of a president he would be. Trump isn’t a good debater, either, at least in any useful, traditional sense of the term, and we’re already fully aware of what kind of president he is.
At best, a Sanders/Trump or Biden/Trump matchup is likely to accomplish little more than to put on display and exacerbate the deep political chasm that already exists in our nation.
The choice itself is fairly uncomplicated: it is between normalcy and healing or more chaos and disruption, between decency and integrity or more bluster, dishonesty and incompetence. Whatever his faults and weaknesses, Joe Biden — and even Bernie Sanders — is an opportunity to reset our path toward our role as the world’s essential rule-of-law republic. If that sounds like boilerplate liberal claptrap to you, then perhaps it illustrates of how little use a presidential debate would be, anyway.
For the most part, Americans have already made up their minds. Come November, let’s just vote. And then we’ll know what sort of nation we actually are.
Reach John M. Crisp at firstname.lastname@example.org.