by Stan Cutler
Presidential candidate “debates” have become the central mechanism of American democracy. In all, television audiences have had 25 opportunities to assess the worthiness of those who wish to hold the most important political office in the world.
From Aug. 6, 2015, through March 10, 2016, Republican candidates participated in 12 debates, beginning with 17 aspirants and concluding with four at the final pre-convention debate.
The Democrats had nine debates, beginning with five aspirants on Oct. 13, and concluded with two on April 14. Since the nominating conventions in July, there have been three presidential debates and one between the vice presidential candidates. Integral to this modern electoral process are the opinion polls of likely American voters that are taken continuously before and after the debates. The post-debate polls are compared to the pre-debate polls to determine the “unofficial” winners and losers.
There’s a lot about this system that troubles me. To begin with, it allowed Donald Trump to become one of the two final candidates for the presidency. Any system that could elevate such a woefully unqualified degenerate is fundamentally flawed. It should never have happened, and we, the people, ought to do something to ensure that it never happens again.
The televised debate system evolved in tandem with state primary elections and caucuses. The Republican and Democratic parties conduct one or the other in each of the 50 states to allow partisans to make a choice in a democratic manner. However, the implementation differs dramatically from state to state. Some primaries are winner-take-all, some are proportional. Some primary ballots include the names of convention delegates, some do not.
The elections take place sequentially from early February until mid-June, a month before the July nominating conventions, at which the majority of delegates are committed to cast a first ballot for the Presidential candidate they supported in their state’s primary or caucus, or, in winner-take-all states, the candidate who received the most primary or caucus votes state-wide. The debates begin six months prior to the early primaries. The conventions certify the results of the states’ elections by officially nominating a candidate.
None of this is in the Constitution. Our founders’ plan was for a president and vice president to be selected every four years by electors chosen by the House of Representatives in proportion to the number of representatives to which the states were entitled by population. But they did not deal with the issue of how the candidates vying for Electoral College votes were to be selected.
In 1800, it took the electors 36 ballots to elect Adams over Jefferson. In the process, the entire system of American government almost collapsed. Bitter partisanships has been fundamental to our system ever since. A tie-breaking amendment, the 12th, was added to the Constitution, but it didn’t address the underlying question of candidate selection.
By the 1830s, two parties had become quasi-governmental organizations and began convening every four years to nominate their Presidential candidates. Through the 20th century, State laws mandating primaries and caucuses were passed to ensure that the parties faithfully represented the wishes of the people at the conventions.
That’s all pretty good – it authorizes us, the people, to directly influence the selection of presidential candidates. But in 2016 the system generated a demagogue candidate, a frozen Congress, and a deadlocked Supreme Court. The presidential campaigns – not the presidents – dominate the entire system of government. The 20th Century system doesn’t work in 2016. I worry that this appalling campaign will become the model for years to come. This year, we need to start looking for the flaws in our system, repairs that we might make to ensure that our great democratic experiment does not end in disaster.
What about this cumbersome system can be changed? Many feel that the problems are best addressed by limiting campaign financing, proposing to amend the Constitution to negate the 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited money to be spent on the campaigns. I disagree. My approach is to de-commercialize politics by lowering campaign costs. I support legislation to abbreviate the primary campaign season and to regulate political advertising rates.
Televised debates are an important component of the system, but they should not be under the control of media companies with a financial interest in prolonging campaigns and sensationalizing the proceedings. As the system has evolved, audience share and viewer ratings have become as influential as elections. Watching them is frustrating because the candidates are entitled to deliver irrelevant responses. They preoccupy public attention for years and promote polarization in the process.
The debates should be conducted with mandatory rules of order enforced by impartial judges. The primary lection debates should be produced by public broadcasters – not news companies driven by profits.
The 2016 Presidential campaign should be the last of its kind. It’s time for reform.