Jennifer Wagner: Watching today’s debates is less than satisfying

  • Comments
  • Print

I want to love political debates, but it’s becoming harder and harder to devote hours of my time to overly rehearsed one-liners and zingers—and the additional hours of commentary that follow those hours.

Who won?

Who lost?

Who had the most GIF-able facial expressions?

Whose team did the best job in the spin room afterward?

The words uttered on stage matter far less than the theatrics of the performance.

(For the record, I’m a regular commentator on one of the local Sunday shows, which makes my stance more than a little ironic.)

I think debates can have merit, but they’ve become so scripted and overproduced that their original purpose—to learn more about candidates’ positions on the issues and to see how they interact with one another—is completely lost.

I’ve helped with debate prep for two statewide races, and it was a huge undertaking: multiple sessions with multiple consultants giving feedback and stand-in opponents grilling the candidate on every imaginable issue that might come up.

That’s nothing compared to the prep work that goes into an appearance at the national level.

The first nationally televised presidential debate back in 1960 fundamentally changed politics in America. Vice President Nixon, the favorite going into the debate, wore no makeup and appeared exhausted. U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, by contrast, looked rested, tan and at ease under the bright lights. The rest is history.

It was the first time millions of Americans had the chance to see their presidential contenders up close and personal—and to judge them on factors that have little to do with politics.

Fast forward to 2016, and you can reasonably argue that the Republican debate structure allowed Donald Trump to pick off a crowded field of opponents one by one with brash statements and insults hurled into prime time.

Unlike Kennedy and Nixon, Trump also had the ability to communicate directly with millions of social media followers, effectively bypassing mainstream media while simultaneously forcing them to cover his tweets.

We’ve come a long way from Lincoln and Douglas debating for hours about the morality of slavery—something the American public would almost certainly not watch these days.

If we want to see candidates up close and personal for extended periods of time, the best we can hope for is a “town hall” setting where select audience members ask questions that are quasi-moderated by a cable news personality sitting with the candidate on a set intended to look like someone’s living room or breakfast counter.

It’s only marginally less forced, and the stakes are still pretty high. One gaffe can be the beginning of the end of a campaign. (Unless you’re President Trump, who turned modern thinking about what you can and can’t say into a hot mic on its ear.)

I recognize that we’re probably not going back to long-form debates, and I think we should have a chance to see how candidates perform in different settings, including on television. I just wish there were a way to ratchet down the background noise so we could actually tune into the conversation.•


Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and vice president of communications at EdChoice. Send comments to

Click here for more Forefront columns.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

2 thoughts on “Jennifer Wagner: Watching today’s debates is less than satisfying

  1. At least for these last two debates, the format was ridiculous. How is anyone supposed to respond on any topic/question/charge in fifteen seconds? If you are going to have time limits (probably a necessity) at least enforce them. Simple solution- cut off their mic at the end of the time. Or, give each candidate a total amount of time for the entire debate, and give them the floor for as long as they wish; when they use up their allotted time, they are done for the night. Take a seat.
    Have the moderator there to act only as a referee, so to speak. Let the candidates question each other. If someone chooses to use their time to campaign, fine…it is their time.
    As the number of candidates shrinks, it should get more interesting. Let them go at each other, gloves off. We, as voters, need to see them perform under pressure, and how they treat each other. Personally, I enjoy seeing candidates go after each other’s records, and want them to hold each other’s feet to the fire. 2016 showed that many voters were tired of politicians acting like politicians and preferred someone saying what many people were thinking.
    Barack Obama was elected because he came along at the right time, was never properly challenged (twice), but he gave people hope. Donald Trump was elected because people wanted change.

  2. First of all to have a debate bring more than three candidates at a time for around
    two hours. This would give the candidates time to articulate their proposals.

    What we have now is just a sound bite fest.