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Gary Pearce: No more debates needed

Presidential debates are outdated. They’ve outlived their sell-by date. They should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

COVID-19 killed off this week’s scheduled presidential debate. Common sense says cancel them for all time. Sixty years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates, they no longer serve any useful purpose. In fact, debates are downright dangerous to democracy.

They hit bottom when the highlight of the vice presidential debate was a fly on Mike Pence’s hair.

In that first encounter of the 2024 cycle, Kamala Harris proved herself a formidable debater. Both she and Pence dodged questions. Pence was effective attacking Joe Biden and defending President Trump. But if the Trump-Pence ticket is losing women voters, why did Pence constantly interrupt and talk over the two women on stage?

Even the fly stopped after two minutes.

President Trump’s insults and interruptions made the first presidential debate painful to watch. His performance may have been as harmful to his political health as the virus was to his physical health. Polls showed him falling as far as 14 points behind Biden.

One report said Chris Christie (who was hospitalized for Covid) urged Trump to interrupt Biden; that apparently causes people who stutter to lose their train of thought.

Trump did throw Biden off stride. He threw moderator Chris Wallace off stride. And he may have turned off swing voters, especially those who like his policies but have concerns about his temperament.

Trump believes you win debates by dominating your opponents.

He might have done better with the opposite strategy: Let Biden talk. In 1988 and 2008, Biden’s runaway tongue derailed his presidential hopes. Many Democrats worried after the debate that Biden sometimes floundered when he had opportunities to articulate a clear and compelling message about what he would do as president. Trump’s interruptions actually obscured Biden’s stumbles.

Biden looked strong when he stood up to Trump. He scored when he looked into the camera and directly addressed Americans – about the pandemic and, especially, about his son Hunter’s battle with addiction. But at other times he showed the same weaknesses he had in the Democratic primary debates.

Because President Trump and many of his staffers were infected with COVID, the commission on presidential debates wanted the candidates to be in separate studios this week. There’s precedent for that. In the third 1960 debate, Kennedy was in New York, Nixon was in Los Angeles and the moderator was in Chicago. Separate studios might make it easier to cut away from – or just cut off – a candidate who talks too much.

But, with this week’s faceoff canceled, let’s ask ourselves: What do debates have to do with being president?

What’s the benefit of thrusting candidates into gladiator-like, high-stakes, high-anxiety, do-or-die duels under the white-hot spotlight of national TV? Does their ability or inability to excel on that stage tell us anything about their ability to serve in public office?

Yes, we want to see candidates in a setting that forces them to be real. TV ads, photo ops and scripted speeches don’t do that. But we learn as much, if not more, by watching candidates answer real-time questions from real-life people in town-hall formats.

Today’s debates are about theater, acting and performing on stage. They are reality TV. If we want a president who projects calm, confidence and command authority on TV, let’s give Lester Holt the job and be done with it.

Debates reward good looks, a glib tongue and a quick mind. Being president requires good judgment, sound character and thoughtful deliberation. They’re not the same qualities.

We need presidents, not performers. We don’t need debates.

Gary Pearce, a former adviser to Governor Jim Hunt, blogs at www.NewDayforNC.com.  

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