Can you feel the excitement? We’re this close to ending the presidential-debate circuses. And here we thought that it might be too late to stop the degradation of American political culture!
This started yesterday after DNC chair Tom Perez took a moment out from his fundraising failures to announce that Democrats wouldn’t trust Fox News to run a primary debate in the next year-plus. Despite the fact that Fox hasn’t hosted a Democratic presidential primary debate since the 2004 cycle, the dig got the attention Perez wanted. It even prompted this reaction from Donald Trump himself overnight:
Democrats just blocked @FoxNews from holding a debate. Good, then I think I’ll do the same thing with the Fake News Networks and the Radical Left Democrats in the General Election debates!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 7, 2019
Gee, I wonder which networks fit the initials ‘FNN’? Three guesses, but Trump’s animosity goes well beyond CNN. At one time or another he’s called every network “fake news” except Fox. If the eventual Democratic candidate won’t go on Fox and Trump won’t go anywhere else, that could spell the end of televised presidential debates.
Well, theoretically, anyway. Is it just an idle threat? Perhaps not, the New York Times reported, although the example they have carries some irony:
The president often tweets idle threats. But his message raised the prospect that Mr. Trump could boycott a debate in the 2020 race if he took issue with the network affiliation of a chosen moderator. General election debates are not sponsored by individual networks; they are overseen by an independent commission and typically aired on all major stations.
In early 2016, Mr. Trump did boycott a primary debate — which was sponsored by Fox News. He had objected to the inclusion of the anchor Megyn Kelly as a moderator.
Even then, though, Trump didn’t insist on barring an entire network, nor did he decline to show up at any other debates. At the time, Trump appeared to realize that surrendering the turf could be a mistake, even if he counter-programmed that debate with a rally carried on other news outlets. If Trump refused to appear at any televised general-election debate, his Democratic opponent would gladly show up and debate the empty podium for as much air time as CNN/NBC/ABC/CBS/QVC allowed. So yes, it’s an idle threat, or at most an opening salvo for negotiations over moderator selection.
That’s unfortunate, but not for the reasons most would assume. Televised presidential debates in their present form are useless circuses, producing gladiatorial combat rather than reasoned discourse. People don’t watch them to learn about policy — they want to see their candidate draw blood and then claim victory afterward. Primary debates are even more useless as they feature too many candidates with little time for substantive responses, even if candidates are inclined to give them.
Everyone loves a circus, though, so we’re stuck with them. If that’s the case, then Jack Shafer’s question to Democrats seems valid. How can you claim to be ready for the presidency if you can’t stand up to Shep Smith, Bret Baier, or Chris Wallace? Or for Republicans, Chuck Todd or Jake Tapper?
That Republicans and Democrats seem so easily bruised by the network coverage of presidential debates shows that both expect the forums to produce infomercials that glorify their candidates, not journalistic grillings. Priebus voiced his preference for infomercial coverage in 2013 after the Republicans voted to block CNN and NBC from hosting debates.
“Our party should not be involved in setting up a system that encourages the slicing and dicing of candidates over a long period of time with moderators that are not in the business of being at all concerned about the future of our party,” Priebus said. Refreshingly direct!
As for the Democrats, no matter your view of Fox or the New Yorker’s view of Fox, the party’s avoidance of the network reveals a shameful political gutlessness, especially considering that Fox intended to assign tame newsers Bret Baier and Chris Wallace to the debate, not feral opinionators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. Being president involves making unpalatable decisions and confronting tough customers on a daily basis. It means learning how to tell voters what they don’t want to hear and convince them they should like it. So any politician who can’t hold his own against a journalist from the other team should be disqualified from running.
Unfortunately these days, a willingness to reach across the divide appears to be a bigger disqualifier, and that’s true of both parties.