Don King was in the spin room.
This was in the hectic moments after the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago at Hofstra University, and the colorful long-past-his-prime boxing promoter was holding court among the hundreds of reporters covering the event. So were dozens of other more-and-less qualified personalities in and out of the political set, all of them opining on who had won and lost.
It was Kabuki theater and entirely predictable. Clinton supporters acclaimed her victory. Trump backers, like King, crowned him the champ. Virtually no one from either side conceded that their candidate had fallen short in any way or that their opponent had made even one good point. And all of those judgments were quickly shuffled into the calculus of a volatile campaign.
Four years later, as Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden prepare to take the stage for the first time Tuesday in Cleveland, it is dismaying the extent to which the debates have become part of the zero-sum game that is American politics today. In this contest, two sides face off across an immense gulf. One side sees little redeeming on the other, and rarely anything wrong on their side. An opponent’s blemishes are condemned as deformities. Your person’s flaws are redefined with a buffed sheen. Divisions only harden, never thaw.
In this war and in the smaller arena of debates, there is little room for nuance. And it’s not clear that television viewers/voters, for whom these debates ostensibly are produced, are looking for any.
How many of us watch to learn something as opposed to watching to have our feelings confirmed? Do we value good arguments on an important issue or prioritize a memorable zinger? Do supporters of either candidate ever really think the opponent "won"? And how many people really don’t know yet how they are voting? A tiny sliver, if polling is any guide.
I was a member of my high school’s debate team back in the day, and I come from a large family with a range of political views. I like a good back-and-forth as long as anger is kept at bay. But the presidential debates do not stand out these days as being illuminating exchanges of persuasion and rebuttal. Even asking for a debate of substance seems a bit ludicrous when one of the participants is Trump. The president’s proclivity for uttering falsehoods derails that proposition. Style is a different matter. The debates are more performance art than intellectual sparring — now more than ever — and, alas, will be judged as such.
That’s a shame. Especially this year, with so many crises buffeting our nation. Look at the list of six topics chosen by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News. COVID-19, the integrity of the election, the economy, the Supreme Court, the Trump and Biden records, and race and violence in cities — all are critical issues. Most could sustain an entire debate on their endless interweaving tendrils. In a serious debate with participants interested in seriously debating, 15 minutes for each would not be enough.
But with ferocious Western wildfires, relentless Atlantic storms, alarming Midwestern flooding, and record-breaking heat this year, where is climate change? It’s especially frustrating given the continuing lament that young people need to get more involved, and that climate change is one of their top issues.
Nevertheless, I’ll be watching Tuesday night as usual, hoping to be surprised, rooting for truth and decorum, seeking in the debate and its aftermath some evidence that we can find our way back from the cliff, preparing to be disappointed.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.