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Debate over debates: Are the presidential debates still important?


Can I just pose the question, what is the point of tonight's debate? What is the point? The presidential front-runner is not there, which might clear the way for his rivals to critique him. But most of those rivals - not all, but most - have so far avoided much criticism of a candidate who tried to stay in office after his previous election defeat and now has been indicted four times. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has been following all of this. Michael, welcome back to the program.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Oh, thank you, Steve. Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: We do see a bunch of candidates on screen tonight. What do you think we have a chance to learn?

BESCHLOSS: Well, what we have a chance to do is, you know, tunnel through a lot of misinformation that is put out by various people and groups. Deepfakes, false videos are getting more accelerating. So, you know, this is a primary source where people can watch for two hours, see eight candidates, be sure this is really them, and take a look at how they react to one another.

INSKEEP: Sometimes front-runners skip a debate. It's not unprecedented that Donald Trump would stay away because he thinks it would just give attention to his rivals. Although never has an indicted front-runner skipped a debate, so far as I know. How different does this feel from what's gone before?

BESCHLOSS: Well, you're right. Ronald Reagan was never indicted, but he skipped the first debate before the Iowa caucus of 1980, which he lost. And in retrospect, he thought that that was a big mistake because it gave people the sense that Reagan was really not up to his game. He was 69 years old. Some of his opponents used the age issue against him. So there will be a lot of talk about Trump tonight. But two hours - you've got eight candidates. You know, dividing up the time, at best, maybe they'll get 12 minutes each. They will be jockeying for prominence and airtime. So whatever we see of any of these candidates is likely to be very brief, but it's better than nothing.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about the way that debates tend to be covered. Those of us in the media, for better or worse - excuse me - I would argue for worse, tend to focus on the jabs and the one-liners and the...


INSKEEP: ...Scripted moments and the moments of apparent combat or seeming combat. But have there been cases in the past where the public has been able to see the substantive differences between their choices, something real about the way the country might be different under this or that person?

BESCHLOSS: Well, you have to go back, and you know where I'm headed, as a wonderful Lincoln historian yourself - 1858...

INSKEEP: Thank you.

BESCHLOSS: ...Lincoln-Douglas debates. They were both running for senator from Illinois. Each spoke for an hour. There was a 90-minute response, then a 30-minute response for that. The whole thing lasted three hours or more. So, yes, they were not brief and terse as tonight will be, but in three hours, you get a pretty good picture of what someone's going to do.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to think through the numbers here, Michael. So an hour and a half for each candidate. We have eight candidates tonight. So if only it was a 12-hour debate, we would really get some time with these people.

BESCHLOSS: (Laughter) Right. No, absolutely right. And that would be the best way, but that is not the year 2023, unfortunately.

INSKEEP: I am really interested in the substance of what some of the candidates have to say. I've been looking at their websites. And some of the campaigns, frankly, are rather thin on specifics. But a number of candidates are picking up constant Republican themes and ideas from the past about radically reshaping or cutting back the federal government. There's a couple of them that say they want to eliminate the Education Department...


INSKEEP: ...That they want to eliminate a lot of federal funding and give back to the states money for health care and highways and a lot of different things. Is there an opportunity here tonight to see, on the whole, a difference between the two parties, how the Republicans collectively would stack up against what Joe Biden has done over the last few years?

BESCHLOSS: Certainly. You've got a sample of eight Republicans who are running hard for this nomination. You know, you're going to see very - as you know, very rehearsed performances. Each of these candidates have been talking to advisers about tactics, how to get, you know, recognized, how to attack certain other people who are threats to them. But you see them all together, and we will see patterns among them that perhaps we wouldn't see if they weren't all on stage together tonight.

INSKEEP: Is there an opportunity for some candidate to be reassuring rather than dramatic or extreme and essentially say the country would be relatively safe in my hands?

BESCHLOSS: There is an opportunity. But the way that this debate is arranged, it's not too likely because, you know, for you to get attention with all these people, as you know, in life, oftentimes that doesn't happen by being smiling and reassuring. It's sort of, you know, the barking dog is the one who gets attention. And I'm not comparing the candidates to dogs, but what I'm saying is that there are all the rewards for someone who has a snappy attack line or a slogan that people will remember or who get into an exchange with someone, get the best of it. Those are the moments that stand out in any debate, and they especially stand out in a debate with eight people.

INSKEEP: Michael, thanks very much. It's always a pleasure talking with you. Really appreciate it.

BESCHLOSS: My pleasure always. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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