By Tim Hayes

One’s an unrepentant socialist, the other’s a reprehensible billionaire. One’s a smug know-it-all, the other’s a shrill know-it-all. One’s a stumblebum old man who’s losing his marbles, the other’s a one-note wonder who doesn’t know when to exit the stage. Listen, they’ll tell you all about what’s wrong with their opponents.

And these people are all on the same team!

Welcome to the presidential debate season, America, where one party spends an inordinate amount of time, effort, and resources hoisting each other on their own petards, while the opposition gleefully racks up free footage for this fall’s tsunami of TV attack ads.

Sure, I get it. The marketplace of ideas, the undeniable right to speak one’s peace, the need to hustle for votes and financial support. Politics is a zero-sum game. You either win it all or you lose it all. I get it, really.

But the alleged “dialogue” among these candidates this year has been beyond disappointing, at least to me. So much so that I can’t bring myself to weather the sniping, the snarling, the verbal machete wielding for the full two hours.

I blame the format, mostly. At its heart, this election represents nothing less than a referendum on the basic course that our representative democracy will take for the next generation. This is super-serious business. It’s not a game show. It’s not a diversion jury-rigged for our superficial entertainment. It’s not “Survivor: Democracy Edition.”

So why does each debate get staged like “The Price Is Right,” with cheesy theme music, spotlights, showbiz graphics, and a boisterous throng of cheering syncophants, hooting and hollering like they’re waiting for their name to “Come on down!” It’s so over the top, it’s sickening.

As a former journalist, I find that the questions asked by the panel present another source of frustration. The tone comes across less as a professional pursuit of facts and opinions, and much more as a constant undercurrent of hope that being so provocative will generate more tension and fighting among the candidates. Because fighting among adults appeals to a wider audience. It has greater entertainment value, say the experts.

But why does what works for “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” need to be the template for determining the next president of the United States? Drives me nuts.

Will different candidates have differing views? Of course. Should voters hear those differences as the pretext to stepping into the voting booth? Absolutely. But why does the process have to resemble bear-baiting, like this is some ratty, sleazy, touring circus from the late 19th century? Shameful.

And the most outrageous part of these modern debates? The live audience. If the ability to land a punch, or deliver a zippy one-liner as an applause generator were the only qualification to become president, then this country is in more trouble than we realize. The live audience strips away any chance for a moral, decent, mature discussion of issues and ideas. It becomes entertainment, not enlightenment.

Finally, I believe each debate needs to center on a single theme. Immigration, health care, crime, taxes, whatever – there are plenty to go around. And if any candidate strays from that debate’s stated topic, his or her microphone gets turned off.

Maybe I’m way too old school, but a debate should have decorum, rules, respect, a truly healthy disagreement and opportunities to rationally explain one’s solutions to the nation’s problems. Not the free-for-all, WrestleMania-like brouhahas we have been subjected to this year.

Because, as I said, the big winner will be the candidate on the other side, since these debates continue to do a great job unearthing ammunition to be used against whomever wins the nomination.

We can do better. We deserve better. We should insist on better. There is just too much riding on it for anything less.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes