Needless to say, The Scrapbook is strictly neutral on the results of last week’s Republican presidential debate on Fox News. So neutral, in fact, that we won’t even mention any of the highlights—or lowlights, if you prefer—and certainly won’t weigh in on who swept the floor with whom, who embarrassed him/herself, or who should have been invited to this particular gathering but was not.
No, we’ll leave the handicapping to those who spend more time around the racetrack than The Scrapbook is inclined to do. Our interest is not in this particular debate but in the institution of presidential debates themselves. Or put another way: Are these televised debates good for our democracy, or not so good?
First, a little history. These encounters are not quite the venerable institutions people seem to believe that they are. The first presidential debates took place as recently as 1960—which is to say, we managed to elect Thomas Jefferson and Calvin Coolidge, and defeat William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, without the benefit of candidate debates. Yes, Abraham Lincoln once participated in some famous debates (1858) with Stephen Douglas, but that was for a Senate seat, not the presidency—and Lincoln lost the race! Moreover, after 1960, there were no more debates until the idea was revived in 1976, pitting Gerald Ford against Jimmy Carter. All of which means that Lincoln, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, both Roosevelts, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were elected to the White House without ever participating in a single debate.
Second, while debates are theoretically intended to reveal the expository skills, and knowledge and judgment, of candidates, they are essentially television performances. What do we remember of these famous matches? Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow (1960); the 27-minute audio failure endured by Carter and Ford (1976); George H. W. Bush glancing at his wristwatch (1992); Al Gore advancing menacingly toward George W. Bush (2000). Michael Dukakis was once asked a hypothetical question about his wife’s rape and murder (1988), and Jimmy Carter was roundly criticized for mentioning a conversation with his daughter (1980). If there was ever a televised debate that hinged on language and substance—and not on the color of a necktie or projection of personality—The Scrapbook would like to know about it.
Third, lest we forget, the United States is not a parliamentary democracy but a tripartite system of republican government with a strong executive. The ability to dazzle with verbal fireworks, to engage in witty repartee, to specialize in tear-jerking eloquence or devastating comebacks, is impressive, even essential, in venues such as Britain’s House of Commons. But in the White House? Imagine John Quincy Adams being asked about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife, or evaluating Franklin D. Roosevelt on the basis of whether TV viewers would choose to hoist a beer with him. What sort of Q rating would Lincoln have earned, with his awkward demeanor, hayseed accent, and fondness for shawls?
Finally, while debates are, theoretically, encounters between candidates, the press has steadily promoted itself to partner in the dialogue. In 1960, it could be argued, the questions posed to Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were largely designed to elicit their views and allow them to challenge one other. Twenty years later, by the time Ronald Reagan was facing a panel of journalists, the formula had evolved into an adversarial procedure: The questions put to Reagan were almost uniformly hostile, and “follow-up” questions were largely a means of prolonging the argument.
That’s been the trend ever since, in The Scrapbook’s view, and it raises a couple of questions worth pondering. Are these slick extravaganzas, complete with cheering galleries, what is meant when we talk about debating the issues? And where is it written that the interests of voters and the health of our democracy are served by verbal skirmishing between candidates and journalists? The Scrapbook was impressed that last week’s “debate” earned unprecedentedly high TV ratings. But to whose benefit?