Presidential debates need polishing

By Lilly Price | Reporter

Democratic debate season is well underway, a chance for the American people to get acquainted with the Democratic presidential candidates as primary elections are beginning to be held across the country. Or at least, that’s the function debates are supposed to serve. However, as we get closer and closer to selecting a Democratic presidential candidate, the debates get messier and messier. An opportunity for the politicians to share their views on different policies has turned into a mudslinging, chaotic, disorganized show. And nothing made this more clear than the debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25.

The first question of the night addressed to Bernie Sanders about the value of democratic socialism when the unemployment rate is currently so low turned into a chance to dig at candidate Mike Bloomberg for being a billionaire.

The debate progresses with each candidate proposing why they would be a better fit for president than Sanders, often cutting off the moderators, interrupting other candidates, and going over their allotted time. And rather than focus on current issues, the moderators also brought up former decisions or policies made by candidates, such as Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk program during his tenure as mayor of New York City, which only further incited criticism from the fellow candidates. And while addressing a candidate’s past is a natural part of the campaigning process, it’s wasteful to use debate time talking about a candidate’s past when the focus should be their plans and policy stances for the future. Not only were past sins brought up and picked over by the participants, but accusations ran rampant, like when Warren claimed that Bloomberg told one of his former employees to “kill” her unborn child.

While all of this pomp and circumstance makes for good TV and entertainment for the audience, it completely misses the point of political debates.

But the candidates themselves cannot take all the blame. The moderators and questions have come under fire for being inflammatory and partisan. A Democratic debate held in Detroit in July 2019 included many questions from moderators that were accused of being Republican talking points. One of the questions, directed to Sanders, included a quote from a Republican congressman that said government-sponsored health care would be the type of policy that gets Donald Trump reelected.

A Vox article about the line of questioning stated “the debate sometimes felt like it was more about attacking progressive policy proposals … than it was substantively exploring the difference between the candidates.”

It’s clear that presidential debates need massive adjustments if they are to serve voters as they were originally intended. More emphasis needs to be placed on the development of nonpartisan questions, ones that look to open a discussion about policy rather than personality. Moderators are there to do just that: moderate. They need to be more intentional about controlling the candidates, enforcing time limits, and preventing participants from following rabbit trails. Rather than a show where the goal is to attack the opponent, more work needs to be put into creating televised debates that actually inform the voter. Democracy only works if people know and understand the positions of their delegates.

Lilly is a senior political science and journalism major from Woodway.