Tuesday evening’s presidential debate may indeed have been the worst of all time, as numerous commentators have said. It may indeed have been an undignified free-for-all, with President Trump making a spectacle of himself while moderator Chris Wallace and former Vice President Joe Biden fought to get their own words in. It may indeed have set a terrible example for young people and anyone hoping to enter politics.
It may indeed have been all those things.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Presidential debates have never been great, or even particularly useful to voters. They’re politics dressed up as prime-time entertainment, covering far too many issues and with stakes far too high to ever involve substantive challenges or discussions.
From the 1960 debates, when the enduring image being a sweaty Richard Nixon and a cool, collected John F. Kennedy, these events have always been centered on appearances and memorable put-downs. The list of quotable lines is long, from "there he goes again," to "will you shut up, man," but can you honestly remember anything important being said?
So while indeed it may be time to retire or revamp the presidential debate format, let’s not blame Tuesday night’s mess. President Trump merely stretched the format to its logical conclusion: All heat, no light, all the time.
It’s difficult to imagine why candidates even bother with the format. In traditional times, a debate can be of some use for a challenger to an incumbent, but history is littered with candidates who did well in a debate or two but still fell short on Election Day. When you think about the time that some put into preparation, couldn’t their time be better spent in meeting with and campaigning to actual voters?
We have alternatives, too. Both Trump and Biden have appeared at town hall forums hosted by networks, where they have to answer questions from voters. Journalists aplenty would be willing to challenge them in direct interviews. In each case, voters stand to learn far more about how the candidate actually responds and behaves in a genuine way.
"But what about the news that came from the debate?" some might protest. Indeed, it was shocking to see President Trump refuse to denounce white supremacists. His answer there has been roundly and rightly criticized. But the president’s ongoing flirtations with racism-spouting splinter groups aren’t new and could doubtless be smoked out in other contexts.
The debate was bad. But few presidential debates are good or even mediocre. As we reflect on the horrors of this one, perhaps it’s time to vanquish the format once and for all.