Commentary: The presidential debate has outlived its usefulness

Lester Holt moderates the first of three debates between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
NBC’s Lester Holt moderates the first of three debates between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

There will be no perfunctory handshakes and reportedly no planned opening statements when the first of three presidential debates kicks off Tuesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump can thank the novel coronavirus for altering tradition during the 90-minute live broadcast. They aren’t obligated to clasp hands and pretend that civility and good sportsmanship still exist in 2020.

It’s also pointless to open the show with a pitch designed to sway the undecided voter. This year’s particularly virulent strain of partisan fever has wiped out what was left of that dwindling population. It’d be easier to find a Nepalese yeti in Cleveland than a voter who truly hasn’t decided between the two diametrically opposed candidates and their political parties.


Given all the events of the past six months, they may as well just come out swinging.

Televised presidential debates were not designed with Trump in mind, nor his devastating brand of constitutional crisis. The president has repeatedly declined to pledge that he will leave office peacefully if he loses the election. He’s repeatedly called the election rigged. He leveraged national security for dirt on Biden by way of Ukraine. And Sunday we learned that the real estate mogul, who Forbes once included on its “400 wealthiest Americans” list, paid only $750 in personal federal income taxes the year he was elected — and didn’t pay any taxes at all in 10 out of 15 years beginning in 2000 thanks to business losses and write-offs.

The virtual Democratic National Convention was designed for the COVID-19 pandemic. It ended up reinventing a fusty tradition — hopefully forever.

Aug. 22, 2020

If these were normal times and Biden’s opponent carried this kind of baggage into the debate, he’d be a dead man walking, his chances crushed by corruption, malfeasance, incompetence and tax records that reveal he wrote off $70,000 worth of haircare. But no, this is 2020.

A debt-ridden former reality-TV host is the incumbent. His opponent, a career public servant, may be versed in the art of public discourse about healthcare, foreign policy, the environment and other subjects that bore Trump — but Biden is also a human gaffe machine, especially when compared with the flawless speaking style of his former boss, Barack Obama.

An event pitting Biden’s Beltway experience and everyman appeal against the made-for-TV absurdity of the Trump show is bound to be a spectacle. What it’s unlikely to be is terribly illuminating — whether for the vanishing sliver of swing-state undecideds or for the rest of us, eager to hear our leaders describe a path out of this mess.

President Trump, left, and his 2020 challenger, Joe Biden, will face off in a debate format designed for another era.
President Trump, left, and his 2020 challenger, Joe Biden, will face off in a debate format designed for another era.
(Associated Press)

The 90-minute face-off — the first of three presidential debates, plus one for vice-presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, planned in the coming weeks — will be moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace from the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. It will be broken into six segments that address topics such as COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in U.S. cities, the integrity of the election and the Supreme Court.Each candidate will have two minutes to respond to the questions asked by Wallace.


The televised debate was designed as a forum for candidates to argue on behalf of competing platforms in front of an electorate committed to assessing their vision and character. Over the years, the media has come to comb all the talk of healthcare and foreign affairs for ratings-worthy zingers, gaffes and flare-ups in addition to wonky specifics, such that most of us, in normal times, might consider presidential and vice-presidential debates lightly informative, sometimes entertaining political theater.

With a rambling speech at the RNC on Thursday, President Trump seemed ready to put COVID-19 behind us. One look at the packed, mostly maskless crowd made that impossible.

Aug. 27, 2020

The format has given birth to catchphrases like Mitt Romney’s “Binders full of women” and memorable rejoinders like Lloyd Bentsen’s rebuke of Dan Quayle: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Nixon sweated, Kennedy charmed. The history of televised debates is full of make-or-break moments and laughable memes.

But Biden, like Hillary Clinton before him, is headed into something very different than the debates of his predecessors.

Trump will make Biden’s former adversary in the 2008 vice-presidential debate, “barracuda” Sarah Palin, seem like a stiff-collared Washington traditionalist.

The old apparatus that got folks excited about elections — primaries, conventions, get-out-the-vote efforts — feels wholly ill-equipped to address today’s maelstrom of voting in a pandemic, when mail-in ballots, like the post office, are under attack, voter suppression is on the rise and the Russians are at the door. Even the old adage “Every vote counts!” feels like a platitude since the two most recent GOP presidents lost the popular vote but still gained the White House, and Mitch McConnell’s Republican-led Senate continues to use raw power, not public mandate, to add right-wing conservatives to the courts.

As for the relevancy of Trump-era debates? Let’s ask undecided voters what they think. You have 35 days to find one.

‘The Presidential Debate’

Where: Various channels

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday