Donald Trump has a way of drawing attention to a problem, although rarely if ever offering any real detailed solution to it. He has done that again, largely by accident, in his row with Fox News over the next upcoming debate among the GOP candidates for the presidential nomination.
Roger Ailes, one of the all-time media geniuses, is perfectly in the right to refuse to let Trump dictate who is going to sit as moderators in the next debate his Fox News is sponsoring. Trump took a beating when Megyn Kelly tried to force him into answering some questions about his wideswinging monologues, largely without substance but that have seduced the media, Fox included. Trump wants Kelly out. Ailes say she stays in. Trump says he will walk. Trump even proposes he will mount his own counter-debate.
This kind of idiotic dustup was almost inevitably going to happen when the whole issue of who runs the debates and why was left to the marketplace. In a helter-skelter race for ad profits, the various TV companies have set up the debate schedules. Some of them, and that includes CNN and CNBC whose coverage is outrageously prejudiced.
The Republican and Democratic Party national committees, which have become pretty useless in the new political environment dominated by the social media, have gone along. That ought not to be the way things should be run in one of the most important political operations in our system, if one that is beyond the formal constitutional requirements.
Public political debates hark back to a time, of course, before the modern instruments of communication. The golden age was the mid-19th century when the very personal arguments between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas over the issues leading up to the Civil War, or for southerners, the more accurate War Between the States. It is perhaps important to remember that while both these politicians were unusually gifted, and their analyses and presentation of their points of view were rhetorically brilliant, they did not head off the surprise election of Lincoln, nor the tragic events that followed despite what most would concede was The Great Emancipator’s effort at statesmanship.
As is generally the case, the nation today is facing many great and small political decisions. History tells us it is not always easy to sort out which is which. But one has to believe that a more informed discussion of the many issues would contribute to the political process, and hopefully, to the strategic decisions which would follow by the electoral victors. That can’t be done if the debates are arranged in as corrupt a way as now is the case.
Before the next presidential election, it is our hope that a better way will be found to order the debates. First off, their direction should be in the hands of a neutral or near-neutral body. For example, a national presidential debate commission might be organized around the League of Women Voters with perhaps an addition of appointees from each of the major political parties’ national committees and perhaps the chairman of the various states’ electoral commissions.
This body would decide how many debates there would be, where they would be [although in the digital age, that seems largely irrelevant], and how they would be disseminated through the media. A portion of the huge profits which accrue to the media through sale of advertising time ought to be set aside to fund the debates, and perhaps contribute to some educational enterprises to make them more effective.
But Trump, although hardly unbeknownst to himself, has opened up this can of worms. And there ought to be an attempt now, anticipating 2020, to find a solution.