Ramon Presson

1.   Weakness in Numbers

My father-in-law, Dr. Greg Phifer, was the coach of the Florida State University debate team from 1949 to 1972. If Dr. Phifer was still alive I can only imagine how irritated he would be that recent political stage shows with almost a dozen candidates are called "debates." And no, I’m not just referring to this year’s Democratic debates. In 2016, there were enough Republican candidates lined across the stage to do a Rockettes routine.

2.   Failure of the Process

In an article for scholastic debaters titled “Debate Rules and Techniques” Kristina Barraso writes, “Debaters should focus on the evidence and avoid making emotional appeals. Debaters should always be respectful of others, particularly their opponents and the judges. Other guidelines include not talking out of turn, not interrupting an opponent, and not falsifying or distorting evidence.”

Do those guidelines read anything like what you’ve seen and heard in political debates?

3.   Debate as Beauty Pageant

Political debates for a large audience are certainly nothing new. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s debates were carried by radio.

The first televised debate between two Presidential candidates took place in 1960. In an article for Time magazine titled “How the Kennedy-Nixon Debate Changed the World,” Kayla Webley wrote, “On the morning of Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy was a relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts. He was young and Catholic — neither of which helped his image — and facing off against an incumbent. But by the end of the evening, he was a star. It's now common knowledge that without the nation's first televised debate Kennedy would never have been president.”

Kennedy appeared calm and confident throughout the debate while Nixon appeared pale and sickly from a recent hospitalization. The power of television is reflected in the revelation that the majority who listened to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won the debate. But radio listeners were greatly outnumbered by the estimated 74 million viewers of the debate.

By 1960, 88% of American households had a television — up from a mere 11% of households with a television in 1950. Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner. Many say Kennedy won the election that night, even though Nixon’s health and performance improved in the next three debates.

From that moment on, television and the visual image and performance of a candidate would influence the popularity and success of a candidate as much as, if not more than, his/her platform and positions.

On a side note, if a multi-participant debate resembles a beauty pageant, let’s all just be grateful that there’s not a swimsuit competition portion of the event.

4. Debate as Marketing Strategy

In a crowded stage of contenders. you have to do or say something to stand out. Keep in mind that few people are going to watch a three-hour debate from start to finish. But they will be reviewing news sources for reviews and commentary about the debate, the declared winners and losers, and highlighted stumbles, sound bites and zingers.

During the 1988 United States vice-presidential debate, Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, was up against Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Dan Quayle. In response to Quayle mentioning the name of John F. Kennedy, Bentsen responded with "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

The sound bite "I knew Jack Kennedy and you're no Jack Kennedy" was a zinger heard round the world thanks to replays. Likewise, current candidates hope to land a memorable line, especially a biting one, that the news media and social media will love.

5.   Debate as Attack the Lead Dog

Throughout the stages in the Tour de France the lead pack of riders (known as the peloton) will chase down a breakaway racer who is perceived as a viable threat to win the stage and will envelop him back into the pack. In the most recent Democratic debate the pack perceived Elizabeth Warren as the current front runner and target her the most. In the previous debate, Joe Biden wore the collar of the lead dog and was the one fending off attacks from the others. 

6.   Debate as Prize Fight

Belmont University will host the final 2020 presidential debate on Oct. 22, mere weeks before election day. Like two prize fighters, the two candidates will strive to get in their punches, score points with their followers, and sway the undecided before the final bell. Each candidate and their party will claim to be the debate’s clear winner. The real loser will be the American voter for whom the debate will be lofty in rhetoric, aggressive in attacks and loose with facts and truth.

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) and the author of several books. Reach him at ramonpresson@gmail.com.  To read Presson’s previous columns go to https://tinyurl.com/yydj72ah

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