The title of my column refers to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas when the two were opposing each other, Lincoln the Republican and Douglas the Democrat, for the United States Senate for Illinois. The seven debates were also known as The Great Debates of 1858. They were called that for a reason. The issue discussed was slavery and although there were some partisan attacks, the debates were substantive and serious, as were the participants.
Today, most people would not be able to deal with the kind of format used — one candidate talking for an hour, the opponent then rebutting for an hour and a half, and then the first candidate for another half-hour. But debates then were not what we see today, and by today, I mean not just the CNN Republican presidential debate last week but those over these last few presidential election cycles. At least that’s how I see it.
I have always been a political junkie so it is expected by those who know me that it was only a matter of time before I stuck my nose in the presidential primary business. I already know that as the election season wears on some of you won’t like what I have to say, but hey, say it I will. And many of you will agree. It’s all good, really. I love democracy.
Here goes with my nose, my opinions. You don’t like it? Pick your own nose.
I watched both CNN debates, the first, featuring the four of the 15 candidates that were not registering enough in the polls to get into the main event, and then the main show with the other 11. Five total hours. (And if you are wondering if I have a life, I admit the answer is no. So there.)
First let me say this. I hate audiences at debates. I don’t mind family members being there, off where they can’t be seen and as long as they stay quiet. I just think the clapping, the cheers, the groaning, etc, not only take time away from the event, precious seconds when too many candidates are participating, but it can skew reality. If there are enough people for one person making enough noise, those watching who may not know better, may get the idea that the one who wins the audience applause wins the debate. And some contenders play to the audience knowing that. I have seen this over the years and I don’t like it. Candidates and moderators, that should be it.
If you were looking for more substance, for learning more about the candidates, the undercard delivered. And not just because the four guys had two hours, plenty of time for each if they wanted it, but because in general, they made their views known.
OK, to the big draw. The main event.
I did not like many of the questions and I did not like some of the format. Clearly, CNN moderator Jake Tapper wanted the candidates to quibble with each other over pettiness rather than delve deep into serious issues. “Candidate so and so, Donald Trump said you are an idiot. How do you respond?” “Next candidate so and so, Donald Trump said you are ugly. How do you respond?” “Next candidate so and so, Donald Trump said you scratch your tushy in public. How do you respond?” And then the back and forth over waste-of-time nonsense. In addition, the rules called for anyone who had their name evoked to be able to reply or jump in. That became silly and should have been used more judiciously.
Imagine had the debate moderators left all that personal stuff alone. Some nastiness might very well have been brought up and countered, and that would have made it interesting enough for those who want to see food fights, but just imagine if more time, even though there were three hours to fill, were used on substance, or to reveal a lack of substance. For me at least, and I try very much to stay informed, I want to know what each person believes and how he or she will implement those beliefs.
I don’t like obvious “gotcha” questions, I don’t like pandering, I don’t like canned talking points and I certainly don’t want to watch a debate only because one of the participants is controversial and there may be non-issue fireworks. “No, I’m not! You are!” “No, you are!” The political talking heads may like that, and many viewers who would have not watched without the anticipation of silliness may like it, but I don’t. It used to be these last few election cycles, most were only concerned that one or the other participant doesn’t say something stupid; it was more who lost than who won, also not the best reason for a debate. Now with Trump in the race, we are seeing childish outrage.
Trump carries plenty of the blame of course because of some of the things he has said, regardless of his tapping into a legitimate anger at Washington. But he is not to blame for silly debates. Fox who ran the first debate could have done a bit better. This time around, CNN, turned the forum into a joke. And for those who argue that because more people are now watching due to ‘The Donald,’ and so, are becoming more attuned to politics and the serious concerns the United States faces, I say, really? Did anyone learn much from 11 people, half of them sniping at each other? If I asked any political newbie, in fact anyone at all, who saw the debate, what Scott Walker believes about the economy, would he be able to tell me? Of course not.
I will tell you what I think about each candidate soon enough don’t worry, but for now I will just give you my opinion of who won and who lost in the two debates, based on performance, not necessarily on what they said. By the way, so many want so much for their choice – several who have no business running – to be the winner, that they separate themselves from reality, and think their guy wins every debate and can win the primaries and the general election.
As I have reminded some of my friends who have a favorite and so, think that person has the best chance to win, because he is so pro-Israel, or because he speaks so well, or because he is the most conservative, or because she is a woman, those attributes don’t make it so. And I would rather win the election than the argument. The goal is to win, not to make the best statements during the primaries. For God sakes, get real, people.
The winners were Florida Senator Marco Rubio and next, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in the second, main debate. I know many say Fiorina won, but at times I thought she was too strident. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham clearly won the first. The losers were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin in the second debate, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former New York Governor George Pataki in the first.
Again, my thoughts about each candidate in both major parties will be coming. Finally, to be very clear, although it is important to be articulate to lead, being able to speak well does not necessarily a competent leader make – just look at President Obama. Also, it does not necessarily translate into being able to win the general election.