I’ve written before about how the quadrennial party conventions have outlived their purpose. There is no suspense any more to these pointless, lobbyist-funded infomercials, and television audiences find them boring.
President Trump and the Republicans are clinging to the idea of holding a huge gathering this summer, but the Democrats made a wise move on Wednesday and announced that theirs will be drastically scaled back, physically speaking.
While former vice president Joe Biden will not be accepting his party’s nomination with the cheers of 20,000 people ringing in his ears, 21st-century technology — if used creatively — gives the Democrats an opportunity to make their convention a more broadly shared experience and an organizing tool for mobilizing support as the fall campaign gets underway.
Next up: It’s time to do some rethinking about the debates.
Trump is claiming he would like to have four faceoffs with Biden, rather than the three (plus one vice presidential debate), that are currently scheduled to take place between Sept. 29 and Oct. 22.
This is not a serious proposal. Even under the best of circumstances, scheduling these much-watched events on the busy fall calendar is a difficult challenge for the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has been in charge of the process since the 1988 election.
It has to find dates that are not on Friday or Saturday nights, do not conflict with sports and other events networks are committed to, or official presidential business, such as attending the U.N. General Assembly in September. Each debate generally requires the candidates to suspend public appearances for at least a few days to prepare.
Finding venues is a challenge, as well, particularly this year. The University of Michigan, which was originally supposed to host the second debate on Oct. 15, backed out earlier this week. University president Mark Schlissel said that with the challenge of trying to reopen the campus safely amid the covid-19 pandemic, it is “not feasible for us to safely host the presidential debate as planned.” It has been moved to Miami.
All of this could be simplified if the campaigns would drastically reduce the live audiences who attend the debates — or even do away with them entirely.
The debates would probably be better, too, if they were conducted — as the famed 1960 one between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was — in a television studio. With modern technology, it would be possible even to hold a town-hall-style debate that way.
“I think the reason the audiences are there is to satisfy the demand for seats from contributors and major party figures and from those who support the Commission on Presidential Debates,” says Democrat Bob Shrum, who was a top adviser to candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “The debates would be better without competing cheering sections, who invariably ignore the advice not to applaud or react.”
Cutting back or eliminating the live audience would also make it more difficult for candidates to pull stunts like Trump did in 2016, when he brought four women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse to a debate in St. Louis and attempted to seat them in his family’s box.
At the time, Trump himself was reeling from similar accusations, as well as the revelations of his own crude comments about women, which were recorded on a now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape. The plan had been to have the accusers confront the former president, who is also the spouse of the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, on national television. When debate commission officials got wind of the gambit, they put a stop to it.
There remain a lot of details to be worked out between now and the first debate. Given the president’s love of theatrics, get ready for lots of wrangling over ground rules and the choice of moderators. Nor will it be a surprise if, at some point, Trump threatens to walk away from the debates entirely.
History also gives him reason to be wary. Sitting presidents — among them, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2012 — often stumble in their first debates because they arrived both overconfident and out of practice.
This year, the stakes for Trump could hardly be higher. His poll numbers are dropping, and there are signs that even Trump’s bluster-loving base is starting to have its doubts about him, now that it is seeing how he handles himself in a real crisis.
So as he looks ahead to the debates, the embattled president might want to focus on winning the old-fashioned way: by studying the issues, showing up prepared and commanding the facts.
If Trump were to manage to do that, it could be the biggest October surprise of all.