The so-called “debates,” among too many Republicans to have a debate, are yet another painful sign of how much words and ideas have degenerated in our times.
No one expects these televised sound bites and “gotcha” questions to be anything like the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates on the momentous national issue of slavery.
But the mob scene of candidates on stage that began with the 2012 campaign, and is now being repeated, is a big step down from the modern one-on-one debates between presidential candidates that began with John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon in 1960.
We still have momentous national issues. In fact, the threat of a nuclear Iran with intercontinental missiles is a threat to the survival of America and of Western civilization. The issue could not be bigger.
But this issue did not get even half the attention as was lavished on Donald Trump. Even in the earlier “debate” among the second-tier candidates, where Trump was not present, the first question asked was about Donald Trump.
Nothing could more plainly, or more painfully, show what is wrong with the priorities of the media.
A poll taken after the “debates” showed that, of the 17 participants, the top 5 were all people who had never run a state government or a federal agency. In other words, those who came out on top in this battle of sound bites were people whose great strength was in rhetoric.
After more than six years of Barack Obama in the White House, have we learned nothing about the dangers of choosing a President of the United States on the basis of sound bites, with no track record to check against his rhetoric?
Remember his promise of creating “the most transparent administration” in history? Remember his talk about “investing in the industries of the future” — and how that led to the bankruptcy of Solyndra? Remember “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”?
These were all great exercises in rhetoric. But before there was a track record to check against that rhetoric, voting to put Obama in the White House was like flying a plane through mountains at night.
If we manage to get through the next year and a half without crashing, should we try that gamble again?
It so happens that there are some governors with outstanding track records among the 17 Republican candidates. But not one of them made the top 5 in the first poll after the “debates.”
This is not to say that no one who has never been a governor should be considered. But to pick the top 5 exclusively from people with no governing experience shows how little we have learned about such gambles with the destiny of this nation.
Part of this is due to the format of these media “debates” among numerous candidates, which reduces their statements to little sound bites — and sound bites are seldom very sound.
Part of this is due to the kinds of questions asked by the media moderators. These first two “debates” were run by people from the Fox News Channel and, by media criteria, they were even praised by their competitors at CNN. But that just shows what is wrong with media criteria.
In the 2012 “debates,” moderator John King asked Newt Gingrich about his marital problems — and Gingrich drew a standing ovation from the audience when he pointed out that the millions of people who were watching on television had not tuned in to find out about his personal life. But then as well, others in the media sprang to John King’s defense, saying that any other media journalist would have asked that same question.
They might well be right. But that just shows what is wrong with the media. This year’s Fox News Channel moderators included people who are fine in their own programs. But cast in this new role as moderators, their reliance on the usual media practices was a great disservice to the country at a time when there are very serious — and potentially catastrophic — issues in the balance.
Is this country’s fate not as important as Donald Trump’s antics? Then why would the first of these “debates” open with a question about Donald Trump, who was not even present?
There is plenty of blame to go around, and neither the media, the candidates, nor the public should be exempted from their share.
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Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.