Presidential ‘Debates’ Aren’t Debates at All – They’re Joint Press Conferences

This kind of format promotes canned mini-speeches, writes John P. Koch

Was this event on Sept. 12, 2019, really a debate? (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

By John P. Koch
The Conversation 

Democratic presidential contenders gather Tuesday evening in Ohio for the latest in a series of televised question-and-answer sessions in the lead-up to the 2020 primary season.

These sessions are called debates by their sponsors and the participants. But are they really?

Presidential debate scholars have long lamented that presidential debates are not really debates at all, but canned mini-speeches at what amounts to a joint press conference.

According to authors Austin Freeley and David Steinberg, “Debate is the process of inquiry and advocacy, a way of arriving at a reasoned judgment on a proposition.” The literature on what constitutes that process is wide and varied, but there are widely acknowledged essential elements in that process.

Engage and Argue

I am a communications scholar who directs the debate program at Vanderbilt University. Here’s what I teach my students about debate.

First, the process involves participants engaging each other on a specific topic. They must answer and question each other’s arguments.

Second, it involves arguments for and against a given proposition related to a topic. For example, college debaters may debate a proposition such as: The United States federal government should substantially increase statutory restrictions on the war power authority of the president of the United States.

Finally, these arguments occur within an agreed-upon format that gives participants a chance to advocate for and defend their opinions. Format considerations that encourage direct argumentation and engagement include time limits, the ability to offer a rebuttal to an opponent’s arguments and cross-examination by participants.

If this all occurs, then an audience can potentially reach a reasoned judgment on the topic.

These are the essential elements of a debate.

Lack of Specifics

Yet in the presidential debates of the last half-century, rarely are specific propositions presented as the focus of the debate.

Presidential rhetoric expert Theodore Windt says that in the 1960 presidential debates, “The candidates wanted only broad topics to be discussed… They did not want to debate specific propositions of policy… They would not really debate, either in format or form, but would answer questions from journalists about a wide range of topics.”

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s 1960 debate lacked focus on specifics.

That lack of focus has persisted to this day. So presidential debates are not really debates because presidential candidates answer wide-ranging and broad questions, not specific propositions.

And because candidates are answering questions from journalists, they are often not engaging each other. Instead, they focus on responding to the moderator and playing to the audience.

For instance, MSNBC co-moderator Savannah Guthrie asked candidates at the June 27, 2019, debate, “Raise your hand if your government [health care] plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” That kind of question focused on engagement between candidates and the moderator, rather than between candidates.

The end result of these now-normalized conventions is that they make it hard to deeply discuss serious issues. Instead, this kind of format promotes the use of candidates’ focus-group tested messaging, one-liners and canned mini-speeches.” There is little back and forth between candidates. Viewers hear monologue, not debate.

Critical Thinking

One of the assumed benefits of Western-style debate is that it is educational to those listening. Research shows that viewers do learn about candidate platforms during debates.

However, learning more about candidate platforms isn’t always the same as learning more about the pros and cons of a given issue or approach.

In short, this style of presidential debates may help voters identify which candidate shares their views, but they do not help them think critically about those views.The Conversation

John P. Koch is senior lecturer and director of debate, Vanderbilt University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

19 comments for “Presidential ‘Debates’ Aren’t Debates at All – They’re Joint Press Conferences

  1. DH Fabian
    October 17, 2019 at 10:17

    At some point in recent months, each candidate had stated that he/she supports the platform/agenda of the (post-1990s) Democrat Party. This can be summed up as neoliberal economic policies, maintaining support for war(s). Business as usual, so I didn’t bother watching the “debate.”

  2. Christian J Chuba
    October 17, 2019 at 09:05

    Worse than a press conference, more like a friendly interview where the host gives leading questions to help his favorites. The one that Tapper gave to Biden was doozie, ‘About Ukraine, where there is no evidence, whatsoever that you are your son did anything wrong, did you do anything wrong?’

  3. Tony
    October 17, 2019 at 08:48

    During one of the 1960 presidential debates, the CIA had briefed Kennedy about their plans for Cuba. Nixon felt unable to respond. The CIA also briefed Kennedy on the bogus ‘missile gap’ with the Soviet Union.

    Thus began Nixon’s deep distrust of the CIA which later used the Watergate burglary to remove him from office.

  4. October 16, 2019 at 23:52

    This is by far the best — that is, the most pointedly truthful — critique of the debates I have seen anywhere, for which many thanks.

    But would someone please tell me — if indeed anyone knows — was it Kennedy or Tricky Dick who demanded the format change?

    • Tony
      October 18, 2019 at 08:06

      I do not know. However, I do know that Nixon threw away the 1960 election.
      His advisors told him that the debates would raise Kennedy’s status and thus make him a more formidable opponent. They wanted no debates.
      Nixon also made his unwise pledge to campaign in all 50 states. His choice of Henry Cabot Lodge as running mate did not help either. He ignored safety advice and banged his knee on a car door which was very damaging to his campaign schedule.

      Nixon seems to have been surprisingly naïve sometimes.

  5. KiwiAntz
    October 16, 2019 at 18:23

    Watching this Democratic debate really demonstrates the lousy choice that Americans face between the two major parties at Election time, the Repulsivecans & the Democraps? Pity, Bernie can’t form his own, third Party with Tulsi Gabbard as his running mate? Your Country seriously needs a third Party option & while your at it, a new Political system such as MMP? Under MMP, one main Party can’t rule alone without forming alliances with smaller Parties? Election bribes via lobbyists & excessive fundraising is banned! MMP is a more democratic form of representation as it forces main Parties to work with small Parties, who act as a deterrent to unchecked power of a main party & holds those Parties to account? Smaller parties are also more socially conscious & support universal healthcare & other policies your Country refers to as Socialism but is really just a form of Collectivism that everyone benefits from, not just Individuals like rich elites? Watching the sickeningly, odious display of CNN moderators & their attempts to frame the debates from their own propagandist views also demonstrates the MSM biases that ordinary people despise & is the reason people are now seeking out alternative news sources for their information!

    • DH Fabian
      October 17, 2019 at 10:27

      “Bernie” and “Tulsi” are solid Democrats today, marketing to middle class campaign donors and voters. In the US, the duopoly (Republican/Democrat Party) dominates our political system, with no chance of a legitimate option being allowed a foothold. Since the Reagan/Clinton era, Americans have shunned such concepts as “social consciousness.” Think of US politics as a football game, a middle class amusement with spectators root-root-rooting for he home team. The games are almost numbingly predictable (Sanders will be the 2020 nominee, Trump will be re-elected, and Democrats are already setting the stage to blame Russia again).

  6. Monte &Elora McKenzie
    October 16, 2019 at 15:47

    last nights “debate” seemed to be corrigrafed as 4 individuals did all the speaking when some other got a word inedgewise they were shouted down!
    A debate should have an agenda and stick to it!
    I thought this was not a useful endeavor . a waste of time!

  7. robert e williamson jr
    October 16, 2019 at 13:23

    Thanks for noticing I thought maybe it was just me. But I knew better it called a debate, thats the commercial name used by the media but none of these farces have been a debate.

    Democrats fell for it and are on a fools errand.

    The ruse has exposed itself for all to see!


  8. Tristan
    October 16, 2019 at 12:43

    Well presented article providing solid points that indicate the vacuous nature of the for profit monopoly media’s idea of politics and elections. Considering that this is an empire ruled by an oligarchy of warmongers, who are the owners of the media called television, it isn’t really a question that candidates for President are presented as game show contestants who must fend off stupid gotcha’ and hit home runs on softball questions.

    No substance is the idea, nothing to hold on to, if the media presenters and their producer handlers can help it. They want entertainment, not edification or understanding. It’s about money, fuquing money in the end. As an absolute free market capitalist imperial empire, the U.S.A. is “Living the Dream”, as many say when asked “How are you?” As such our televised debates, just like the advertisement for a hamburger sandwich, is all presentation and little substance.

    • Skip Scott
      October 17, 2019 at 10:16

      “No substance is the idea, nothing to hold on to, if the media presenters and their producer handlers can help it.” If you think it’s bad now, wait and see how much worse it gets as we approach the general election. The candidates seek to become as amorphous as possible, so if you squint just right you think you might be seeing someone espousing something you can agree with. And of course, most of the battle becomes a mud-slinging contest that leaves both candidates looking like they wallowed in a sty, and the voter trying to choose a “lesser evil”. It’s a non-choice between corporate sponsored warmonger from column A or B in the end.

  9. October 16, 2019 at 11:49

    For sure, it seemed like the candidates were interviewing for a job with the CNN bosses.

    I did not appreciate how the commentators blindly supported the “Tough on Syria” rhetoric, as if a good Democratic candidate should punish evil Assad for gassing children, which is essentially the MSM’s sole argument to go to war. Its funny that the media commentators and most Americans do not even know that Assad was fighting IS/ISIS- the very terrorists that we claim to have been fighting for the last 18 years. That begs the question, what “rebel groups” was America supporting in it’s Syrian regime change agenda?

    I know all CN news readers know the answer… but 10/10 of my family, friends, and neighbors do not know. When you ask them the above question, though, it takes them 30 seconds to realize America has been siding with Islamic State extremists.

    I also wanted to point out that being shelled, machined gunned, starved, tortured, raped, displaced, and/or crushed alive in buildings are all much more humane ways for Syrian women and children to die than by (alleged) chemical attack. Keep killing them, as long as you do it the old fashioned way!

  10. Drew Hunkins
    October 16, 2019 at 11:45

    Mayor Pete Butajudge gets the award last night for most inane gibberish about Syria. Haha! Who does this slickie boy think he’s fooling? He droned on about I don’t even know what, some banter about how US soldiers leaving the northeast, yada yada yada causing the carnage to the Kurds. This was in response to the peace and justice champion Tulsi Gabbard’s eloquent and enlightened statement about how the regime change war Washington started in 2011 was the true cause of all the current mayhem. Professional liar Mayor Pete couldn’t deal with this stark reality Tulsi was dropping on the entire rooom in Westerville.

    It was ponderous to watch this little slickie boy Pete, reminded me of graduate school. He’s a professional liar who could lead us to nuclear war.

    • Monte &Elora McKenzie
      October 16, 2019 at 15:53

      yes and yes ! Tulsi was shouted down by idiots !
      TFour of the hopefuls did almost all of the talking!
      Without any moderator control!

  11. John Drake
    October 16, 2019 at 10:27

    I have to agree totally with the author. Last night’s so called “debate” was a farce. For one thing it is impossible to have a debate between so many people as the dialogue is so short as to make it unsubstantial, regardless of how it is set up.
    There were some important points made mostly by Bernie, Warren and Tulsi, but time precluded adequate elaboration on what are very complex issues.
    The number of candidates running has made me suspect that some of them are just there as part of the DNC stop Bernie movement. Most of them are mediocrities lacking substance, wasting valuable air time. They should go back to their day jobs.
    The point has been made elsewhere that the moderators frame the questions with corporate-especially health insurance industry- talking points. This is particularly evident around Medicare for all. What is supposed to be a forum on the candidates views ends up being a series of editorials by CNN and the New York Times. Of course we can’t expect much more from two outfits that have advanced the art of propaganda way past what Goebbels or Izvestia ever accomplished.
    Really the only way to evaluate the candidates is to research their records as they can say anything they want while the time constraints restrict adequate challenges. Examples of this are the two biggest sleaze balls: Joe Biden(“the Senator from MBNA”) and Kamala Harris, who jailed 1500 pot heads, but let Steve “the foreclosure king” Mnuchin off the hook.

  12. AnneR
    October 16, 2019 at 10:11

    I have never watched such a “debate.” To me they are simply “party political broadcasts” albeit at this moment they are candidate specific (so one might term them “candidate political broadcasts”?), simply candidate trumpeting. And given that the DNC (not sure about the RNC) will, in the end, choose the candidate that *they* want, that best suits their agenda, i.e. the agenda of the big donors, big machers of the party – what *is* the point of these so-called debates, beyond photo ops?

    Each candidate might do better publishing their political Manifesto, i.e. a complete run-down of their intentions, their positions on the crucial matters – domestic AND foreign policy, medical care, taxation, military funding and warmaking, the grotesque inequality, housing, infrastructure, homelessness, poverty – and how they intend to implement them, fund them and what they mean, for instance, by “medicare for all.”

    So far I’ve not heard any of these candidates state clearly either WHY we cannot afford free at point of service medical care for all (which, by the way, is NOT medicare as is) nor WHY we can’t pay for it by: a) taxing the top 20% of the rich-wealthy at the same rates they were back in the 1950s-1960s; b) WHY the funding for that obscenely bloated, immoral and murderous MIC can’t be significantly reduced so that, in fact, it lived up to its name rather than it being the arm of the corporate-capitalist-imperialist global dictatorship that it is.

    The only mention of cost (as if the US medical industry isn’t already the most expensive and least efficacious [in terms of its results] across the western world) for the – completely unelaborated – medicare for all (MFA) plan seems to involve ignoring completely the above resources and only (in order to ensure that nothing akin to it ever comes into being) that MFA would have to be paid for by a tax on those vague American “middle classes” (vague because elsewhere they are rightly perceived as two or more distinct socio-economic levels: working classes *and* middle classes). And such as Warren (deep in the pockets of the Wall Street lot) know that this will not go down well with the “middle classes.”

    But Sanders and those for MFA really need to look at Medicare as it already exists. It is NOT free. A monthly deduction from Social Security (the sum dependent upon the SS payment AND if the recipient wishes to AND can afford to have, through an insurance company, a “higher grade” coverage) – per person, not per household, plus co-pays for some medical practitioner visits, and for all procedures. These latter can be fairly steep and beyond the pockets of the already poor (e.g. a colonoscopy co-pay can be around $250-$300 whether on straight Medicare without any private health insurance coverage or on the HMO version via such insurance coverage). This is not free medical care as it ought to be for ALL this country’s people. This country is still (somehow) the richest one in the world, yet IT cannot provide the kind of medical care – free at point of service and totally free to seniors – that other nations consider normal. Appalling.

    • Miranda M Keefe
      October 16, 2019 at 15:22

      Medicare for All is not a good name or Jayapal or Sanders’ bill, but it is the name attached to it.

      It is IMPROVED Medicare for All. No co pays. It covers all medically necessary needs with no need for an additional program as current Medicare needs.

    • Monte McKenzie
      October 16, 2019 at 16:11

      I am a Korean war vet with WEW2 first level health care I volunteered for draft in ’51 because congress was already modifying the GI bill to reduce it from the best ,the ww2 bill! I got in by a couple of months!
      What the VA does for me should be the model for all Americans and all visitors in our country at the time of their health concern prior to leaving our country !
      I was given free medical care when I injured myself in British Columbia in 1957 , they dressed my wounds then gave me medicine and I saw the doctor three more times to make sur I was ok! no charge no paper work no bullshit!
      That is how we should be handling all health in America !
      The biggest cost of our current system is paperwork and billing ! necessary to keep the sysyem going it has nothing to do with health everything to do with collecting for a procedure !

  13. Eddie S
    October 15, 2019 at 20:24

    Excellent critique of the televised political ‘debates’. I would add that I believe that they’re just a vestigial remnant from days long gone-by where there was nominal media, and about the only way you could learn about a candidate and his (they were virtually all men back then) political stances was to go watch a speech or debate. Nowadays there is SO much media coverage in SO many modes, that debates are huge time-wasters in terms of finding out information about a candidate. They’re closer to a reality TV show than an informative forum.

    I personally prefer the written word when getting political info since it can offer analysis that a person can weigh without being influenced by superficial irrelevancies (ie; is that candidate good looking, do they have a strange speech pattern, do they smile a lot, etc, etc). Too often our political elections seem to be little more than HS Homecoming elections for king & queen, except those HS elections had higher turnout percentages…

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