Alice Lin: The Democratic debates are getting us nowhere

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 2:47pm

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As I was watching the fourth Democratic debate, the realization struck me halfway through that I was bored. Since the summer, I’ve been following the televised discourses religiously to gain a better understanding of each candidate’s platform and gauge their responses to issues affecting our nation before the primary election. But the fourth time around, I just didn’t have it in me to sit through another three-hour show. With a fifth one scheduled to take place in November, the question nagged at me: Why do we need so many debates? 

Of course, the purpose is to allow the public to learn more about why one of these 18 candidates is best fit to be president. But is there really anything new being said on stage? Ever since candidate Andrew Yang said it in the second debate, it has become more apparent these debates are really just “political theater.” Candidates still vie for standout moments where they can get a jab at another candidate or a slogan they can overuse — like the I wrote the damn bill” line from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. It stops feeling like a forum for the discussion of important issues and more like a moderated verbal sparring match. There’s no need for an excessive amount of debates when candidates are only going in circles with their talking points and nothing new is being introduced.  

The problem with these debates is the field of candidates hasn’t narrowed; while the third debate had only 10 candidates, the fourth had 12. The whole purpose of having a smaller pool of candidates is to get a deeper insight how their views and plans differ, but if the debates continue to include more candidates who probably will not win, it defeats the purpose. There is less time for each candidate to talk and many of the lesser known candidates barely get any speaking time compared to the frontrunners. Even at the last debate, the moderators spent a lot of time going back and forth between candidates who were arguing over one issue, which restricted the amount of air time other candidates got to speak. If anything, the qualifications to participate in these debates need to become more selective so the public can focus their attention on those who will most likely have the best chance at winning the primary. 

Furthermore, it felt like the candidates were just reusing their talking points at this last debate; a lot of the topics candidates are asked are recycled versions of questions from older debates that tie back into the larger umbrellas of foreign policy, gun control, health care and the economy. There is a lack of focus on other issues which also matter; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called out the lack of focus on women’s rights while former Rep. Julian Castro added climate change and immigration to the list of neglected topics. It becomes repetitive to hear candidates recite the same lines about Medicare for All versus private plans when there are so many other health care issues the audience wants to hear about.

Another aspect about the structure of these debates that should change is how much the audience gets to contribute towards deciding what the candidates discuss, especially since candidates are running for the right to represent these people. While the debates are too large to follow the structure of town hall meetings where constituents get to directly ask questions, there are other ways to gauge the audience’s interests. The organizations hosting the events should allow constituents to send in issues they want to hear more about or even host a livestream where viewers around the nation could send in questions. While it is also true that candidates are able to change the subject to focus on women’s rights or climate change, it takes away from their time to give their input on other policy issues. It’s unlikely that any candidate would have changed their mind in the month between debates, so why not ask more relevant questions instead of forcing viewers to sit through another three hours of the same discourse? 

All of this comes into consideration since the University of Michigan is scheduled to host its own presidential debate next fall. Of course, the circumstances of this debate will be different — the pool of candidates will be much smaller and this time they will be on opposing sides. Even so, the structure of political debates can be improved, especially since students would want a chance to ask questions about issues they care about such as in previous debates. We should aim to make the experience more streamlined and productive especially since students have a personal investment. For many of them, it may be the first presidential election in which they get to vote. Furthermore, a lot of the proposed policies will actually impact the future of these students, so students should be given the opportunity to directly participate and gain a better understanding of pressing issues. The University itself stated its intentions to contribute as a whole to the development and understanding of issues that face the nation. With all eyes on it next fall, the school should take the chance it has to improve on the way that these debates are structured and set an example for the future.

Alice Lin can be reached at alicelin@umich.edu.