Anyone who is a student of history, or has ever been on a high school debating team knows that today’s televised candidate debates are not really debates. Whereas academic debate formats focus on one issue and allow participants to develop thoughtful responses, televised debates force candidates to address numerous issues in a race against the clock. In-depth discussion among candidates is a dead art and a thing of the past, and that’s too bad. I would love to have been around for the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. That year, Lincoln was running against Democrat incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, and each debate ran about three hours. That meant when honest Abe stood up to speak, he could talk for a full hour on the evils of slavery without being interrupted. Compare that with today’s televised debates in which candidates are forced to give short, soundbite answers to “gotcha” questions posed by journalists who love to hear themselves talk.

The first nationally televised Presidential debate was in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy, and while it was more dignified than the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton circus of 2016 (who can ever forget Trump inviting Bill Clinton’s alleged rape victims to sit in the audience?), it still ushered in an era in which TV debates were more about avoiding mistakes than engaging in positive discourse. JFK prepared for the match-up by getting a suntan and plenty of rest, while Nixon suffered through a knee injury, refused to wear make-up, and showed up looking pale and pasty with a five o’clock shadow. Americans who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon scored the most points, but those who watched on TV said the more photogenic Kennedy won. The young Senator went on to win a narrow victory on Election Day, but it would be 16 more years before any major party candidates risked looking bad on TV.

Reagan made Jimmy Carter look bad in 1980 when he posed the question to viewers; “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”(they weren’t), and he responded to Carter’s criticisms by saying, “There you go again.” Four years later the master communicator buried Walter Mondale by making a joke about the former Vice President’s “youth and inexperience.” In 1992 George H.W. Bush made the mistake of looking at his watch and appearing bored and disinterested. And, in 2012 Obama made Mitt Romney look silly when Romney said, “The Navy is smaller now than in any time since 1917”, to which Obama replied, “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed.” One could argue that candidates like JFK, Reagan, and Obama won their elections because they made their opponents look bad on television, therefore, debates serve a legitimate purpose. But most political pundits agree that TV debates very rarely change anyone’s mind.

Over time, TV debates have become an election year staple, but not just for Presidential candidates. Those running for Congress, Senate, and Governor have increasingly appeared on various local and Statewide broadcast debate stages. Lately, however, there’s been more debate about debates than there have been actual debates. Here in North Carolina, Congressman Ted Budd recently made news when he refused to participate in a debate to be sponsored by the NC Association of Broadcasters. Budd’s critics tried to make a big deal of the NCAB snub, but if they thought he was afraid to debate or answer questions, they were badly mistaken. In fact, Ted has appeared on my Triad Today TV show numerous times, including a heated debate with then opponent Kathy Manning. And later this week, he will face off against Cheri Beasley in a televised debate hosted by Spectrum News. Again, though, it’s unlikely that anything Budd or Beasley says at the Spectrum debate will result in anyone changing parties. Nor is it likely that a disproportionate number of undecided voters will gravitate to one candidate over another as a result of the debate. Perhaps things would be different if televised debates were real debates, with candidates having more time to speak, and with more camaraderie and less vitriol. We almost had that leading up to the 1964 election.

In 1963, President Kennedy and his friend Barry Goldwater (the presumptive GOP nominee in ’64), planned a joint whistle-stop tour in which the two rivals would ride the train together, and at each stop, stand out on the platform and hold an informal debate for the gathered crowd. It would have been a wondrous sight to see, but Kennedy’s life was cut short before he and Goldwater could realize their dream of a bi-partisan train trip. I wish candidates today would participate in whistle-stop debates, but I fear that will never happen. After all, who would operate the buzzer every time someone goes over his allotted 30 seconds? 


Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15)

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