The first Presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden felt more like a verbal boxing match than a political event. And if the point of a debate is to better inform the public of the candidates’ positions on the issues, last night was an utter failure. It was “a hot mess inside of a dumpster fire inside of a train wreck,” Jake Tapper said on CNN. His co-host called it “a shit show.” Where's the lie?
What exactly happened at the "worst debate of all time"? As the sitting president steamrolled the moderator and failed to condemn white supremacists, Biden fought back against Trump's constant interruptions with one-liners like: "Would you shut up, man?" But the whole debacle left many viewers wondering if there would — or even should — be a second debate at all.
“The debates are now a danger to public safety and a direct threat to Black life,” tweeted former MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry. “Cancel the debates.”
Though Perry was not alone in wanting to end the debates (Rachel Maddow also suggested we perhaps "debate by mail" instead), others believe they should continue as scheduled, but suggest there be rule changes going forward. “Moderators should have the ability to cut off [Trump’s] mic and split screens should be limited,” Simon Rosenberg, a former senior consultant for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told POLITICO. “Let them talk to the American people without the other facial expressions and interruptions registering.”
For those who think the debates should continue simply because that's what has happened in years past, it's important to remember that "because that’s how it’s done” is not much of a reason — precedent can be changed, especially in these unprecedented times. Republicans know this better than anyone, as can be seen as they move forward with a Supreme Court nomination before the election, despite having acted according to different rules when Obama was in office.
But, Biden is an establishment politician whose campaign tends to adhere to existing standards, whereas Trump is a political outsider who makes his own rules. The playing field is not even and there is no fair competition because the two candidates are operating from different playbooks. In a situation like this, the best thing to do is leave the playing field altogether. And, it turns out, there is precedent for that.
Debates are not as ingrained in American politics as the current system might have you believe. The first true set of candidates to participate in a series of debates were Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, when they were running against each other for a Senate seat in Illinois. The first nationally televised presidential debate is largely cited to be between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, but the idea was actually introduced four years prior, when Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson challenged incumbent Republican president Dwight Eisenhower to a debate in 1956. But instead of those two men debating the issues, two women stood in instead — for the Democrats, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; for the Republicans, the senior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith.
The debates between Kennedy and Nixon were a major factor in that election: Nixon’s proficiency at radio debates did not translate well to the visual medium, and Kennedy’s performance and polished appearance helped give him an edge over Nixon. But even those consequential spars didn’t turn debates into an integral part of the campaigning process. Following the Nixon-Kennedy debates, there were no televised debates for 16 years.
There have also been times when candidates have refused to debate. In 1940, Wendell Willkie challenged incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt to a debate but he refused. Following the 1960 showing, Nixon refused to participate in debates against subsequent opponents, as did Lyndon B. Johnson. And in 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to debate challenger Ronald Reagan if the independent candidate, Illinois Congressman John B. Anderson, participated. The first debate occurred between just Reagan and Anderson, and the second debate was canceled.
Does this mean that the upcoming presidential debates can be canceled? Or that they will be? Unfortunately, that's highly unlikely. Presidential debates have gone on as scheduled for the last 40 years, and if either Biden or Trump said they wanted to back out of future debates, there's no doubt the opposing side would exploit that perceived weakness to their advantage. So, barring some natural disaster (which, hey, it's 2020, anything could happen) or a cancelation by the Commission on Presidential Debates (the organization behind the debates), we're set to have two rematches between Biden and Trump in our future. 2020 really is the gift that keeps on giving.