The end of the debate? Republicans close the curtain on political theater

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The huge collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington include two brown wooden chairs. Their backs have labels explaining that they were used by John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in “the first personal discussion between presidential candidates” at the TNZT television studio in Chicago in 1960.

In short, the first televised presidential debate. And where America led the way, the rest of the world followed, copying the model of gladiatorial politics as the ultimate format for helping voters make a decision.

But on the road to the US midterm elections, the debate seems to be on the decline, a victim of fragmented digital media, a highly polarized political culture and a democracy losing its sense of coherence.

For many Republicans, dodging debates is a way of expressing disdain for a national media outlet that has derided former President Donald Trump as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” Some Democrats have a different motive, refusing to share a platform with Republican election deniers peddling baseless conspiracy theories.

In Arizona, for example, Democratic hopeful Katie Hobbs has turned down a debate with Republican Kari Lake, a telegenic Trump supporter who has pushed his “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election has been stolen.

But the Republicans are the main opponents. In Nebraska, governor candidate Jim Pillen has declined to debate Democrat Carol Blood. Pills campaign manager Kenny Zoeller told the Nebraska Examiner that “he doesn’t do political theater.”

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In Pennsylvania governor’s race, Republican extremist Doug Mastriano has turned down a televised debate with an independent moderator. Instead, he reserved a hotel ballroom on Oct. 22 and selected a partisan to referee: Mercedes Schlapp, who was the director of strategic communications at Trump’s White House. Democratic rival Josh Shapiro has little reason to accept.

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In North Carolina, Ted Budd, who served four Republican primary debates in his Senate race, has said he will not accept an invitation from the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters to debate Democrat Cheri Beasley. Budd said he had accepted an invitation to a cable debate, but there is no agreement with Beasley about that appearance.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a time-honored tradition that America exported around the world. Even Britain, after decades of resistance, followed suit in 2010 with three leadership debates between Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.

“Believe it or not, I watched all four Kennedy-Nixon debates and you could have heard a pin drop,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Everyone watched. In fact, over 70 million views and the number of votes that year? 70m.

“But in the era of 400 channels, when the polarization is so intense that the vast majority of voters already know who they are voting for, it doesn’t matter what happens in a debate or if there is a debate. The cost of not debating is very small. ”

The format isn’t quite dead yet.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman has agreed to one game with Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, while in Georgia incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker (who evaded primary debates) appear closer to a deal.

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In Michigan, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Republican nominee Tudor Dixon, after lengthy bickering, finally agreed to a single debate next month.

Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will debate Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, but only once and only on a TV station in West Palm Beach. In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has allowed a single debate to Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke — but it will be on a Friday night, vying for the eyes of the high school American football season.

In any case, the enthusiasm for debating is disappointing: candidates seem to be looking for an excuse not to do it in a divided America where the sliver of undecided voters offers diminishing returns.

Instead, they turn to partisan echo chambers aimed at motivating the rise from their own bases. Republicans, in particular, have so far rejected the mainstream media in favor of far-right outlets during the campaign. It’s another blow to the idea of ​​common experience, shared reality, and the glue that holds democracy together.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “It’s dangerous because these televised debates at all levels have been one of the few good things about democracy in the modern age. People had to stand there and defend themselves and say what they believed and let the voters take a good look at them.”

But Kamarck, who worked in the Clinton White House, remains optimistic that the shift is not permanent. “It is driven by a group of Republican candidates who are very inexperienced and ideological and know they can’t do well in a debate because there are so many things they are for that are either unpopular or indefensible in terms of policy.

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“What you see here is a Republican party that has gone off the rails under the leadership of Donald Trump. It’s this year’s crop of candidates who aren’t very serious people and can’t debate, but I think debates will return when the Republican Party starts nominating normally qualified people to run for office.”

The acid test comes in 2024. From Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” tease with Jimmy Carter, to George HW Bush’s thoughtless glance at his watch, to Trump’s apparent threat of putting Hillary Clinton in jail, presidential debates have even created great moments. though in reality they may not have changed their mind much.

There was an ominous sign earlier this year when the Republican National Committee, which has turned out to be a cheerleader for Trump, voted unanimously to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was created in 1987 to codify debates as a permanent part of the presidential elections.

Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan who has attended presidential debates for the past two cycles, said, “One of the great things about a debate is that a candidate has to answer a question that they may not have thought of. were planning and, under pressure, how they are going about it.

“When we look for candidates for these really important positions, we want to see how they answer the 3AM call or deal with something unexpected. It’s pretty good on the track training and rehearsal for the actual track over an hour and a half. We have all these different ways of evaluating candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and it’s just another one that falls by the wayside.”

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