Brennan: Debates miss key audience

By Tom Brennan |

Those who plan those big debates are still missing an important point.

The purpose of the debates is — or should be — to give the American public a better understanding of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. Both of this season’s nationally televised face-offs largely failed in that regard.

The Commission on Presidential Debates doesn’t seem to understand that the most important audience is us, not them (the candidates). For that reason the live camera should be only on the candidate who is speaking. The television audience should rarely see both candidates at once.

When they show pictures of the two debaters side by side the debater who is supposed to be quiet can mug and grimace, distracting from the speaker and focusing the audience on the wrong person. The audience misses a lot of the impact the speaker might otherwise achieve.

The big event on Wednesday night between Vice President Mike Pence and the candidate seeking to replace him, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, was a big improvement over the goat-rope in Cleveland on September 29. In that one, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off against each other.

In that earlier event President Trump’s flamboyant personality caused him to grimace and bluster so much that he continually took attention away from Biden when Biden was speaking. That allowed viewers to draw certain conclusions about Trump — which was perhaps what the event organizers intended. 

But it prevented much of the audience from focusing properly on what Biden was saying and how well (or not) he was saying it. That was an important opportunity that was essentially blown.

This week’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City was much more civil than the earlier face-off between Trump and Biden. In fact, both Mike Pence and Kamala Harris came across as very classy people. They deferred to each other and exchanged compliments quite nicely.

Harris seemed to avoid mugging for the camera when Pence was speaking. Pence made a mighty effort in that regard but his inner feelings often showed on his face and that was at least a minor distraction for viewers.

But the biggest problem was that when Pence was speaking he often got wound up and kept talking after his speaking time was up. When moderator Susan Page tried to get him to stop talking and let Senator Harris have her turn, he often kept on going. It seemed at times that Page would have to tackle him to make him stop. And she seemed ready to do that a couple of times.

Some said the speakers should have been given more than two minutes for each of their stints at the microphone. That might be a good idea.

The next debate is tentatively scheduled for October 22 in Miami, the rules are yet to be finalized and Trump is saying he won’t participate if it’s virtual. It’s probably unlikely but when the commission makes its decisions it should consider that the audience for that event should be the American people.

The nation’s voters should be able to use the debates as an opportunity to get a good look at the candidates. That ought to include getting a better understanding of how they think and what they hope to achieve in the next four years.

The organizers need to remember that the audience for these debates is us.

One Response to Brennan: Debates miss key audience

  1. Elizabeth October 12, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Agree with all. The first presidential debate from my viewing perspective was a proverbial circus complete with elephants, donkeys and clowns. It was pretty awful and I’m not sure what was gained as the behavior from the candidates and Mike Wallace was far less than stellar and frustrating for a listener. Hope for an improvement in Miami.


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