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We Don’t Need Debates

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28.09.2020

The first column I ever wrote was about the April 2008 Democratic presidential debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It took place in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The debate was a mess. As I wrote at the time:

“The moderators spent about 40 minutes on a trite list of recriminations apparently intended to bait the candidates into a ‘Jerry Springer’-like brawl. Barack Obama was again asked to address the kerfuffle he caused by labeling rural voters ‘bitter’ and to explain his relationship with the frightening Reverend Wright, and Hillary Clinton was again pushed back on her heels for saying that she had ducked bullets in Bosnia.”

I focused that column on the lack of discussion of environmental issues.

Since then, I have covered many more presidential debates — sometimes writing about them, sometimes discussing them on television or social media. At one time, I was into the spectacle of it all as much as anyone else. I waited for the defining moments and the slip-ups, the best zingers and the worst flubs.

But debates have come to be about sport and sparring rather than a true comparison of the relative readiness of the candidates. They are too much theater, too little substance.

The debates test the performative aspect of leadership: stamina, mental agility, wit. Policy is discussed, but........

© The New York Times


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