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Debates Must Start Scrutinizing Candidates' Approaches to Govt

Debates Must Start Scrutinizing Candidates' Approaches to Govt

Members of the Proud Boys (l) and Black Lives Matter protesters (r) confront each other during the vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 7, 2020. (George Frey/AFP via Getty Images)

By    |   Saturday, 10 October 2020 07:14 AM EDT

Are presidential and vice-presidential debates an indispensable part of selecting the nation’s chief executive?

There is a near consensus that the first debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was not a model of statesmanship. The vice-presidential debate this past Wednesday was notable for fabrication on the Democratic side and for a fly settling on Vice President Mike Pence’s hair for two minutes.

Moreover, President Trump has declined to participate in the now-cancelled second presidential debate after the Presidential Debate Commission abruptly and unilaterally changed the rules to make it a virtual rather than an actual encounter.

All of this would have horrified our Founders, who, while conceding that the only legitimate basis of our government was the sovereignty of the people, believed that direct popular election of the president was unwise.

The Electoral College was their chosen mechanism for presidential selection, and was to consist of particularly politically astute representatives who would be able to make a reasoned choice relatively immune from demagogic or venal pressures.

Unfortunately, for better or for worse, it didn’t work out that way.

While we maintain the outline of the Electoral College, we now, in effect, elect the electors through the operation of our party system. The Founders feared the corrosive aspect of political parties, given that they tended to represent factional interests, and tried to construct a Constitution which could operate to effectuate the objective national interest.

The original design created a republic — a representative government grounded on the rule of law — but it could not endure unless the American people employed disinterested virtue in the exercise of the franchise.

Too often our political parties, like the Democrats of today, have sought to appeal to Americans’ baser instincts, and the imperfection of humanity.

Thus, Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris’s repetition of the lies that President Trump is a racist or white supremacist, or that he dismissed the American military as "losers and suckers," that Trump caused all the virus deaths, or that he failed to resist Vladimir Putin’s plan to put a bounty on the heads of American servicemen.

The latest whopper to be fabricated, launched at the vice presidential debate, was Harris’s assertion that Abraham Lincoln failed to fill a Supreme Court vacancy created weeks before a then-upcoming presidential election because he wanted to let the American people decide.

He believed, chimed Sen. Harris, "that it’s the right thing to do."

This was her way of smearing Republicans, who are in the process of filling a Supreme Court vacancy with the superbly qualified Judge Amy Coney Barrett, instead of waiting until after the election.

Harris conveniently omitted the facts — made clear in a new book by Ilya Shapiro, that Lincoln had political reasons for hesitating, among them that the obvious choice for the Supreme Court, Salmon Chase (who was eventually appointed and speedily confirmed after Lincoln won reelection) was a man whom Lincoln didn’t fully trust.

Given the delicate political coalition that Lincoln was trying to maintain, he wanted to do nothing precipitously. Moreover, Congress was not in session when the Roger B. Taney vacancy occurred, which would have required the calling of a special session, which Lincoln had no desire to do.

As Victor Davis Hansen remarked recently on Tucker Carlson’s Fox program, the debate moderators, both at the presidential and vice-presidential debate, have characteristically featured "gotcha" questions being posed, with dubious assumptions to the Republicans, while failing similarly to expose the missteps of Democrats.

The fact that the moderator of the previously scheduled second presidential debate, Steve Scully, is a former employee of Joe Biden did not auger well for that encounter, giving President Trump another reason to hesitate.

The virtual format of the reconceived debate also offered Mr. Biden the chance to have aides present, who could provide coaching through teleprompters (or other means), and meant that the moderator could arbitrarily cut off Trump’s computer feed at any time.

There was also something distinctly unfair about unilaterally changing the agreed-upon debate rules in mid-game. Since this change came on the heels of what many perceived as a striking victory for Vice President Pence, it was natural to believe that the purportedly non-partisan Presidential Debate Commission was not as presented.

If presidential debates are to continue to be a part of our tradition, it is essential that a way be found to make them an actual examination of the parties’ differing approaches to government. In this election, the American people have a clear choice to make between one party that favors central-planning, wealth redistribution — and, in the case of some of its representatives, such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., "Democratic" Socialism — and the other that favors lower taxes, deregulation, and leaving economic decisions to the people themselves.

That should be the subject of any remaining debates.

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. Read Stephen B. Presser's Reports — More Here.

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If presidential debates are to continue to be a part of our tradition, it is essential that a way be found to make them an actual examination of the parties’ differing approaches to government.
commission, debate, electors, page, sanders
Saturday, 10 October 2020 07:14 AM
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