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Election 2016: What Purpose Did the Debates Serve?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton just had their last of three debates before the presidential election. PHOTO / Wikimedia Commons
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton just had their last of three debates before the presidential election.
PHOTO / Wikimedia Commons

By Max Neuman

Published: October 26th, 2016

As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (DNY) and Donald Trump ( R-NY) walked off the stage in Las Vegas, foregoing the traditional handshake of reconciliatory amity between two political pugilists, they ended the final high-profile flourish of their marathon campaigns. They also ended their degradation of the virtue of deliberation in American politics.

In addition to the histrionic character bashing conducted by both major-party candidates, some policy disagreements were also hashed out—although more so in the vice presidential debate between Senator Tim Kaine ( D-VA) and Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) and the finale of three presidential debates than in the first two presidential clashes.

Even before the presidential candidates had said a word while standing beside each other during the third debate, the tone had already been set when the the Commission on Presidential Debates established the cast of characters at nominating conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland. That same commission had also established rules to keep third-party candidates away from the spotlight, even in a year of immense displeasure with the American political duopoly.

Mr. Trump, the first major party candidate without experience in elected office or military command since Wendell Willkie in 1940, fundamentally altered the nature of both the campaign and the debates with his crass style that is typical of the alt-right movement and supported by the eclectic mix of ultra-conservative anti-intellectuals that forms his enthusiastic voter base. 2016’s debates were unique in the superficial level of their dialogue and the extent of their coverage. The candidates’ personalities—one a media mogul and television star and the other a first lady and former presidential candidate—meshed with less-established policy ideas like mass deportation and breakneck adoption of solar energy, and therefore, a policy dialogue was never likely. Moderators attempted to force dialogue, and only Chris Wallace had any substantial degree of success in doing so.

Debates are meant to delineate candidates and flesh out proposals. They are opportunities for an in-depth comparative and substantive interrogation of the most serious task of leadership that anybody can take on. This year’s contests, though, due in equal measure to the candidates’ personalities and the media’s appetite, were far less up to the task. They muddied the waters for anyone hoping to make a choice based on policy, although the decorum of Secretary Clinton did lend credence to her presidential pitch. Decisions made by voters at the polls in a fortnight will be largely emotional; the candidates have given them little else to go on.

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