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It’s debatable if debates happen

Commentary:

The problem with presidential debates is they don’t have a scoreboard.

We treat them as if they were a football game, with clear winners and losers. President Joe Biden sent out a taunting video last week in which he claimed, “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020.”

To my pleasant surprise, Trump responded to the taunt by agreeing to all of the terms proposed by the Biden campaign. That means there will be two debates, the first June 27 on CNN and the second Sept. 10 on ABC.

More significantly, the debates will be held without a live audience, and the microphones will only be turned on when it’s the candidate’s time to speak. The last debates between Trump and Biden had so many interruptions that both the moderators and the time limits were meaningless. And, moving the debate from a college campus, which has become the favored locale, to a sterile TV studio will completely change the experience.

The most effective debate moment of the last few cycles was scored by Donald Trump in 2016 without saying a word. At a time when he was facing sexual assault allegations (has there ever been a time when he wasn’t?), Trump arranged to have Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Kathy Shelton seated together in the front row staring down Hillary Clinton throughout the debate. All had made allegations against her husband Bill similar to those made against Trump.

Trump is apparently having second thoughts about agreeing to all of Biden’s terms. He’s now demanding a drug test, giving him an excuse to back out. I’ll be pleasantly surprised again if the debate set for June 27 takes place as planned.

I didn’t expect there to be any debates this year, after the Republican National Committee decided in 2022 to no longer agree to terms set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen the process since 1988.

That leaves it up to the campaigns to negotiate their own terms without a neutral arbiter. If I’m right, and Trump backs out of the terms he seemed so eager to accept last week, it won’t be the first time he’s reneged on an agreement.

And, it won’t be a great loss to the voters. The problem with debates isn’t that they don’t have scoreboards, it’s that we treat them like they should. We keep score based on best zingers or, more likely this year, most verbal gaffes.

All of the hype and hoopla leading up to and during the event give off the vibe of a championship prizefight, not a thoughtful discussion of complicated issues. We would be better served if the debates were replaced by a series of town hall meetings where informed moderators and voters would have the time and platform to get beyond the talking points and to the substance of the issues.

During this primary election, I have participated in both a formal debate, in an event at Picacho Hills, and more informal discussions on KTAL-LP community radio. While the debate format may be more fair in that it rigidly enforces equal time, the discussion format allows for a far more thorough examination of the issues.

In the past, debates have been useful in introducing new candidates like Barack Obama or George W. Bush to a national audience. It’s hard to see what the usefulness will be this year. In a country this large, there must be somebody who is unfamiliar with the two candidates. But I doubt if that person will be watching the debate.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com. Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.