The 2024 presidential campaign debates have arrived, and so has the quadrennial debate about them.
Why can’t the candidates be civil? Why do the debates always seem like a circus, or worse, TV wrestling? What can be done about TV’s propensity to position these events as prize fights and in the process, encourage these high-octane, verbal wrestling performances?
The Fox News Republican presidential debate held last week in Milwaukee was the first of two GOP clashes scheduled so far for this year.
The next one is set for September 27 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Fox Business is the lead network for that one.
“Tonight, the race for the White House takes flight!” announced Fox News anchor Brett Baier at the start of last week’s debate telecast.
“Welcome to the first debate of the 2024 presidential campaign live from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee!” he said as a camera located somewhere in the rafters provided a wide shot of the audience and stage.
Named for its current sponsor -- Fiserv, a financial services company -- the Fiserv Forum is the home of the Milwaukee Bucks, one of the NBA’s top teams.
The arena’s seating capacity for basketball is 17,385 -- a huge place to put on a presidential debate. The bird’s-eye view mentioned above made this debate look more like a full-fledged convention than a debate.
Maybe that was by design. As Baier mentioned in his introduction, Fiserv is also to be the venue for next summer’s Republican National Convention, where each of the eight hopefuls in last week’s debate hope to be crowned their party’s nominee.
“Eight Republican candidates have qualified and have chosen to be here on our debate stage!” said co-anchor Martha McCallum in her portion of last week’s introduction.
“They are here to lay out their vision for America as they battle for the GOP nomination!” she exclaimed.
It’s always a “battle,” isn’t it? It’s a great word, and one that is used constantly for anything from boxing matches to TV show titles (NBC’s “Lip Sync Battle,” HGTV’s “Battle On The Beach,” Discovery’s “BattleBots” -- you get the idea).
For all those shows -- and the countless number of TV shows and live events that are ballyhooed as “battles” everyday -- a “debate” in which a group of presidential hopefuls convene to strut their qualifications for the highest office in the land is certainly more dignified than a “battle,” right?
I know what you’re thinking. Criticizing our televised presidential debates for their staged combat is futile.
The debate civility ship sailed away so long ago that half of Americans alive today have no idea what a calmer presidential debate would even look like.
Last week’s clash of Republican battle bots was not the worst we’ve ever seen in terms of personal attacks, finger-pointing, yelling and eye-rolling (by the candidates, not viewers at home).
Nevertheless, our news media insists on portraying these debate shows as fights to the finish, and the participants as Roman gladiators.
This is not to single out Fox News. Everybody does it. We’ve all seen the pre-debate hype on all the TV news channels in the days and hours leading up to one of their exclusive, live debates.
On debate day, the promotional volume gets turned up to 11. As their ubiquitous countdown clocks tick off the hours and minutes until prime time, the upcoming debate show gets picked apart from dawn to the wee hours on their endless parade of talk shows.
The commentary and predictions -- who will win, who will lose, what they’ll say -- is all a lot of hot air, like the conversations you hear before a boxing match.
Maybe this time it was a question of venue. Seating for nearly 18,000 seemed like overkill.
The tone of the next one might be a lot different. The auditorium/event space at the Reagan Library has a seating capacity of 650.
Above photo: Screenshot from last week’s debate on Fox News Channel -- Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley.