image credit (AP/Morry Gash)
Free speech and debate are foundational to American democracy and governance. Only through rigorous discussion and the fair exchange of ideas can voters better understand their options for elected office.
Unfortunately, many candidates are bucking the long-established trend of debating their political rivals.
Former President Donald Trump, leading Republican primary polls by a wide margin, made a rational political calculation that only harm can come from debating the rest of the GOP field.
Trump is so far ahead that his campaign believes facing the American people and defending his ideas and actions is unnecessary. According to FiveThirtyEight, the latest GOP polls taken before the debate Wednesday night show Trump polling at 52.1%, his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, with 15.2%, businessman and author Vivek Ramaswamy follows with 9.7%.
The other notable contenders, including former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, poll at around 3-4%. North Dakota Governor Doug Barnum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson are also in the race, with less than 1% in the polls.
All of these candidates– except Trump– competed in the first Republican primary debate on Wednesday, August 23, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During the debate, Trump ran a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. Carlson posted the interview on his X account, formerly known as Twitter.
President Joe Biden has similarly pledged he will not participate in any debate despite the candidacies of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, who have received a moderate following at 12% and 7%, respectively.
Williamson said, “The assumption that Joe Biden is necessarily our best bet in 2024 should be vigorously challenged. He should face his primary challengers in a meaningful debate.”
Biden feels that only harm to his campaign can come from facing criticism from candidates who feel they could better aid the American people. Biden holds low approval ratings and concerns over his health, which rival candidates would assuredly bring up in a debate.
“They are both gadflies who have done nothing to earn the right to debate a sitting president in an otherwise uncontested primary,” Biden ally Jim Kessler said in response to calls for debate.
From a purely political perspective, each campaign's decisions make sense. Biden and Trump appear highly likely to clinch their party's nomination, so why would they debate and potentially derail that likely outcome?
Because it is in the best interest of democracy and the American people.
Suppose a candidate cannot prove capable of defending their ideas and character in front of the American people on a debate stage; how can we trust they can fight for our interests abroad and the best possible plans to promote prosperity at home?
If a candidate is the best choice for their party and the American people, as Trump and Biden believe, why should they have any problem proving this on the debate stage?
The history of debates in America is long and vital in understanding political discourse.
Some of the best-known political debates in American history occurred between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the run-up to the Illinois Senate election in 1858. Douglas was the incumbent candidate holding the Senate seat since 1847, yet he still debated Lincoln in long-form debates across Illinois that gained widespread popularity.
Modern political debates have much to learn from these debates, namely that long discussions are more productive than quick soundbites. Each Lincoln-Douglas debate lasted three hours and contained hour-long opening statements. The brevity of televised debates today often leads to a spectacle looking more like reality television than a thought-provoking debate on critical issues important to voters.
However, before we worry about the nature of the debate format, we must emphasize that they take place with all candidates first.
Lincoln achieved widespread popularity despite losing the Senate election to Douglas in 1858. The elections ran differently from today, as the state legislatures chose the Senators before 1913. Lincoln still went on to win the Presidency in 1860 and provided the necessary strong leadership during the Civil War that held our nation together.
If Stephen Douglas had not debated Abraham Lincoln, there is no way to know where Lincoln's career would have gone. The debates gave Lincoln a national platform to showcase his intelligence and well-thought-out vision for unifying the nation.
Without the debates, there is no way to know if Lincoln would have ever gained the popularity necessary to achieve this remarkable feat. Lincoln's ideas may not have reached national prominence without the discussions.
Debates are critical because they offer new perspectives to tackle the nation's issues. In addition to giving voters a fair chance to choose the candidate they believe will represent their values best, debates can help change the conversation nationally on the most prominent issues.
We must have the most notable names in politics present to unpack these ideas and lay out their vision for the future. These figures are necessary for the debates to maintain their value, as the leading candidates take away the importance by not showing.
Without rival candidates being able to challenge Trump, Biden, or any other future candidate, our presidential elections lose the critical spirit of democracy.
According to a USA Today/Suffolk University Poll, “80% of Democrats want to see Biden debate in the primary election.” Despite this overwhelming support among voters, the Democratic National Committee says it will not sponsor any debate.
Suffolk Political Research Center Director David Paleologos stated, "The decision not to debate ignores the 82% of women, 84% of union households, 86% of independents and 90% of young voters who not only plan to vote in their state's Democratic primary or caucus next year, but would also like to see a series of Democratic primary debates."
This decision not to debate undoubtedly hurts the American faith in our democracy, which is already plummeting.
Former President Trump's decision to Wednesday's debate is no better as he faces four indictments and should present a case to the American people about why he believes himself innocent and why voters should trust him again. According to a Firehouse Poll, 66% of Republicans want to see Trump debate.
To provide voters with the necessary information and to maintain the spirit of democracy, it should be mandatory for candidates to present and defend their ideas in front of the American people on the debate stage.
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