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Listening for a Hint in Thursday’s Debate

Instead of zingers and grand plans, candidates should speak about how they’ll govern.

August 5, 2015

Like a meticulous pre-schooler lining up the finger paints before bursting into a riot of color, I have been honing my metaphors before Thursday night’s Fox News debate in Cleveland.

Which candidate will make a fatal Mistake on the Lake? Will this be the Trump l’oeil debate dominated by a bumptious billionaire with no chance of being president? With the debate set highlighting Trump in the middle, will this be a case of Fox News in the chicken coop? During the preliminary 5:00 pm debate for the polling laggards, who will spill the juice at the Children’s Table?

I have watched, man and boy, virtually every presidential debate since John Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off under the hot TV lights in the studios of WBBM in 1960. And for all the emphasis by both the media and the campaigns on rehearsed putdowns, it is surprising how few zingers linger in memory.

Walter Mondale’s 1984 “Where’s the beef?” challenge to Gary Hart’s “new ideas” has lasted longer than the Wendy’s ad that inspired it. The Ronald Reagan highlight reel invariably includes the 73-year-old’s practiced response to Mondale that fall, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

But most supposedly pivotal debate moments quickly become a blur. Part of the problem is that the news media’s debate questions are designed to rattle the candidates and get them to go beyond stump speech rhetoric. That’s laudable in theory, but, in practice, it can lead to debate exchanges that are as perishable as summer raspberries.

The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm, recently released a retrospective analysis of the 719 questions that were asked during the 20 GOP debates during the 2012 campaign season. The report concluded, “The debate analysis shows that the distribution of the questions asked in 2012 didn’t reflect the Republican electorate’s top concerns.” This mismatch cut across TV networks. Fox News, for example, over-emphasized foreign policy questions at a time when GOP voters cared most about the economy.

Debates have another failing, which is hard to fix even with rejiggered questions. The most serious structural issue facing American democracy is the collapse of either party’s ability to govern. Would-be Republican presidents will talk confidently on Thursday night about their plans after taking the oath of office on January 20, 2017. But unless there is a GOP landslide next year, the new president will contend with a closely divided Senate in which a Democratic filibuster can halt most legislation.

This stalemate has afflicted almost every element of American life for more than a decade. Everyone who travels—and that means all 535 members of Congress—knows that America’s roads are crumbling, its airports are decrepit and, sadly, its railroad tracks can be unsafe. But in Washington there is no bipartisan vision for anything other than maybe, with heavy legislative lifting, putting a temporary patch on the highway bill.

Columnist Thomas Friedman in the New York Times cites this problem to pitch for his favorite remedy, a gasoline tax hike. My goal is different—I just want the nation’s transportation problems solved on a permanent basis. In similar fashion, if we cannot as a nation agree on the cause of global warming, can we at least act boldly to limit the effects of climate change?

Between now and the 2016 election, we as a nation will pause twice to mourn the victims and recall the horrors of September 11th. As we bow our heads in remembrance, maybe some of us will recall the sense of national unity that bound us together for a few months—regardless of party or ideology—after the Twin Towers toppled. It was that all too brief awareness that what unites us as Americans is so much more important than what divides us.

But then it vanished, maybe because of the Iraq War or, more likely, because vicious partisanship had become too ingrained in our national psyche. At this point, I have lost interest in who initially destroyed our ability to solve problems as a nation. What interests me (and it is at the center of my view of the 2016 election) is who, if anyone, can change things in Washington.

We have grown rightly cynical after two presidents failed to alter our destructive political culture. It was not only Barack Obama’s 2008 brand of hope, but it was also George W. Bush’s promise in 2000 to be a “uniter, not a divider.”

As a result, I’m not listening for a set of magic words about unity on Thursday night. And I certainly will not be taking seriously Trump’s trumpery about the art of the deal. But maybe I will hear a small, sincere hint from someone on the debate stage that mature adults in both parties can still find a way to govern our increasingly fragile democracy.

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last nine presidential elections. Along the way, he has worked for two newspapers (USA Today and the Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and the Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Politics Daily). He is also the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in November 2003.

Shapiro is a lecturer in political science at Yale. His book on his con-man great uncle, “Hustling Hitler: How a Jewish Vaudevillian Fooled the Fuhrer” will be published in 2016 by Blue Rider Press. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.