Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Encouraging No-Beef Debates

You probably remember the greatest hits of Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). In a debate during the primary contest of 1980, he declared "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green." There were "there you go again" and "are you better off than you were four years ago" directed against President Jimmy Carter. Four years later, President Reagan quipped of Walter Mondale "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Mondale himself benefited from a one-liner when he asked primary opponent Gary Hart "where's the beef?"

In 1988, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen turned toward GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle and charged "I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." 

These remarks had two things in common: they occurred during a debate between presidential or vice-presidential contenders, and they contributed nothing toward understanding issues or what the individuals would do once in office. And if not for these great one-liners, it's not certain that we would have hurtled down the road to the hatred of government and vast economic inequality President Reagan promoted.

Thankfully, these zingers have become less common the past quarter-century. However, that somewhat ancient history may rear its ugly head again. 

Earlier this month, Joe Biden commented "It's a little bit of exaggeration calling it a debate. It's like a lightning round." and for once he won't have to retract a statement.

When in Miami Wednesday and Thursday evenings the Democratic presidential candidates "debate" each other, they

will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups. And there will be no opening statements, though candidates will have a chance to deliver closing remarks.

The two-hour debates will zip by quickly, with five segments each night separated by four commercial breaks.

Ten candidates will face off each night on NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo after a total of 20 candidates met the Democratic National Committee's threshold for participation.

With so many candidates, there's only so much time to go around.

Yes, superficiality will rule the day (night).  If- as will prevail-  there is insufficient time for any particular candidate to explain a policy, there will be plenty of opportunity to stage a quick strike with a prepared one-liner that will leave pundits breathless with excitement.

Worse, the isolated, out-of-context remark will hit social media with a bang and be replayed continually by cable news and broadcast networks. And it will tell us nothing.

It didn't have to be this way. There could have been five nights with four hours of debate each night, one hour with each of two candidates squaring off. That would have been eight candidates per night and 40 for the week.

With 20 candidates making the cut, each individual would have appeared twice, facing a different opponent on the two occasions. Amy Klobuchar, for instance, might have debated Joe Biden one night, Andrew Yang the other.  Biden in turn would have (obviously) debated Klobuchar and, perhaps, Julian Castro- or Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper, or Kamala Harris.

Almost no one would have watched all twenty hours. However, everyone could pick and choose which hours she or he wished. And who could pass up the chance to hang on every word from John Delaney?

Perhaps it would have been too much to expect that a news network would have sacrificed ratings for the opportunity for viewers, who will be voters, to be informed.  The DNC also may have balked.  But it would have given the candidates more time to explain their positions and would have spared us prime-time meaningless speculation from MSNBC employees, contributors and guests about what to expect in the debates upcoming that evening.

Admittedly, there would have been a downside. Whomever emerges as the eventual nominee would not have had the experience, so needed in a general election campaign, of debating nine other candidates simultaneously.

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