With both a presidential debate and a vice presidential debate out of the way, it’s finally beginning to feel like we’re rounding the corner toward the final stretch of this impossibly long election year. For what it’s worth, Wednesday’s vice presidential debate did offer a helpful glimpse into how California Sen. Kamala Harris might’ve performed had she been the Democratic nominee for president herself. But there are still plenty of worthwhile arguments to be made about the plummeting cost-benefits of this year’s debate run. Aside from the easy entertainment value of the rolled eyes, transparently hyperbolic language, and the occasional winged insect, can there really be any new insights or significant engagements made on those stages?
The Trump administration’s extremist views and chaotic campaign strategy have altered the electoral landscape for the public and for the media, as casual observers and experts alike struggle to apply traditional considerations to painfully untraditional times. As a result, our standard for culturally and politically acceptable norms has begun to slip more quickly towards the right. Unassuming attempts to “humanize” right-wing conservatives the majority of the American public “disagrees” with resulted in bizarrely gentle human-interest profiles on white supremacists. The insistence on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” made room for pundits to hypothesize in public about the lives of already vulnerable populations. After watching two moderators pose questions to both parties’ nominees and their running mates, it’s safe to say the past four years of right-wing bolstering have pushed debate questions to the right, too.
Well-intentioned or not, the debates have been plagued with questions that invite candidates to entertain ideas that are irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the presidential debate last week between President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, and USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page, the moderator for the debate between Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, both offered questions that invited candidates to consider possibilities that shouldn’t exist in the first place — or, perhaps worse, made room for candidates to air unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and speculation as legitimate concerns.
Toward the end of last week’s debate, for example, Wallace asked Trump how he would handle a dispute in the election results in the event that he loses in November. The president responded with a cluster of all of his favorite voting conspiracy theories, from the existence of fraudulent mail-in votes to Democratic election officials mailing extra ballots to Democratic voters. He even leaned back on an old refrain from 2016, insisting that thousands of votes back then were simply tossed out by Democratic officials who didn’t want him to win. None of this is true, but by asking Trump a question that gave credibility to the premise, it helped the president lay the groundwork for distrust and skepticism toward any result this November that is not in his favor. He’s done this before — indeed, he’s being doing it via all-caps tweets for months — but letting him sow distrust in the process on the national debate stage is outright dangerous.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Page asked her own spread of unhelpful questions. Asking if politicians believe in climate change is a classic point of ire for scientists, and also regular Americans who want the planet to continue existing. It’s just plain embarrassing in 2020. But nevertheless, Page tossed a question in that vein toward Pence. In a particularly slick jumble of semantics, Pence replied, “With regard to climate change, the climate is changing, but the issue is what’s the cause and what do we do about it?” Again, in 2020, that is categorically not the issue; we know what’s causing climate change, and it’s pretty clear what to do about it.
Page further asked the vice president if he considered climate change an “existential threat” — apparently because an eventually gradually unlivable planet might be just a regular ol’ threat, not an existential one — and predictably, Pence ignored the question entirely. I can’t offer anything new here that environmental experts and piles of data haven’t already made clear to us, but pretending man-made climate change is a matter of differing opinion is ludicrous, and it helps accelerate out current crisis of quickly disappearing species and natural resources and the rise of unpredictable, community-destroying natural disasters that will literally lead to the end of humanity.
Perhaps the most damning question for Page, though, concerned a possible transfer of power in November. More than once, Trump has openly said that he may not leave the White House peacefully even if he isn’t re-elected. On Wednesday, in an unimaginably nonchalant tone, Page asked Pence the following: “If Vice President Biden is declared the winner, and President Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power, what would be your role? What would you personally do? You have two minutes.”
Beyond the fact that Pence refused to actually answer the question, instead insisting that he “know[s] and believe[s]” that Trump will win in November, asking how Pence would react if the current president refuses to leave office if he’s voted out suggests that that is an acceptable course of action for Trump. Worse still, Page asked Harris the same question, wondering how she and Biden would prepare for a scenario where they win the election but Trump refuses to vacate the White House. It’s irrelevant to the American people, because they should not be planning for that scenario, because it’s illegitimate and unconstitutional.
If the president loses the election, he has to leave office. The “but does he really?” lingering at the end of that statement is evidence of a failing democracy. If the goal posts of public debate have slipped so far right that the most mundane of civil democratic processes — vacating an office once your term is up — is up for polite discussion on a national stage, then perhaps democracy itself is on the table, too.