I wrote a commentary years ago griping about a local TV station’s political debate, which looked like a Wrestlemania production with “showdown” hype, heckling of the participants from the audience and a lightning round in which the anchor asked candidates incisive questions such as, “How much can you bench-press?”
The station’s news director shot me an email demanding to know, “What do you propose we do? Go back to the Kennedy-Nixon format?”
“Yes!” I replied. “That’s exactly what I propose. Absolutely.”
Because of the compromises we’ve had to make in fighting COVID-19, I pretty much got my wish in last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate on CNN between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the last candidates standing.
Gone were the fawning entourages, the live audience and all the other showbiz razzmatazz. Just the two candidates in a studio, standing behind lecterns a safe 6 feet apart, taking questions on the gamut of issues that have defined the campaign from unobtrusive moderators who mostly let the candidates go back and forth.
Other than the modern Technicolor instead of grainy black-and-white, it almost channeled the landmark confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, which kicked off the era of televised presidential debates.
With showbiz-style debates before live audiences, candidates gravitate toward catchy sound bites that arouse the house crowd and get them exposure on newscasts and social media feeds.
But with entertainment not the goal and no grandstand to play to, the debate can become a revealing dive into policy proposals and records. Candidates can be passionate, pointed and pugnacious while still maintaining reasonable dignity.
Sanders pressed his call for “Medicare for All” and a democratic socialist revolution against what he described as severe economic and social inequality in America that he believes can be solved only with fundamental systemic change.
“It’s time to ask the question of where the power is in America,” he said. “Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process?”
Biden hammered his message that what Americans need most is a return to stability after the endless drama of the Donald Trump years.
“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” he said. “We have problems we have to solve now. What’s the revolution going to do, disrupt everything in the meantime?”
In the end, Democrats who watched were left with a good understanding of the choice before them, which is the main purpose of a debate.
The coronavirus is forcing us to change our ways of doing things — often causing hardship, but in some instances bringing change that turns out for the better, such as the stripped-down debate format.
Here’s hoping some of the latter sticks when this nightmare is over.
Reach David Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.