The 2016 Presidential Debates Could Become a Slugfest

The 2016 Presidential Debates Could Become a Slugfest

iStockphoto/Library of Congress/The Fiscal Times
By Eric Pianin

Few could doubt the impact of nationally televised presidential debates after Republican Mitt Romney set President Obama back on his heels in their first encounter in October 2012.

Romney was articulate and aggressive while Obama appeared frazzled and very much off his game. Romney’s commanding performance helped the former Massachusetts governor briefly energize his floundering campaign and regain its momentum.

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Moreover, with home viewership topping 67 million, the debate -- moderated by Jim Lehrer, the former news anchor for the PBS News Hour – broke a 32-year gross viewership record dating back to the first debate between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Yet amid dramatic changes in political campaign tactics and fundraising and the way Americans consume the news, these televised general election presidential debates actually are suffering from diminished reach.

A new study issued on Wednesday by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania seemed to compare presidential debates to TV entertainment. Their assessment: the more than two-decade old debate format is to blame for the low viewership among millennials, although baby boomer viewers have increased.

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So what to do?  In an era when large audiences pay far more attention to “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Master Chef” and “So You Think You Can Dance” than to increasingly lengthy presidential campaign seasons,  how can the political parties and the National Presidential Debate Commission jazz up the debates to attract and keep a wider audience?

The Annenberg panel, of course, stops well short of recommending the equivalent of no-holds barred political mudwrestling to heighten audience engagement and sustained interest. The goal, the group says, is to expand and enrich debate content and produce a better informed group of voters.

To that end, the advisory group appears anxious to get rid of the moderator or middle man as much as possible and allow the two candidates to set the agenda and duke it out. They want to get rid of the one or more prominent journalists who set the ground rules and determine the pace and course of the evening’s discussion.

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If, for example, Hillary Clinton were to slam, say, Marco Rubio in a debate, Rubio shouldn’t have to wait patiently for his opportunity to reply but should be allowed to jump in with a rejoinder. Think of it as the resurrection of CNN’s Crossfire.

To add a smidgeon of Jeopardy to the proceedings, each candidate would have a total of 45 minutes to spend to make their case or defend it.

While the candidates would have plenty of opportunity to get their political messages across, they would also have to respond quickly to attacks. A well-scripted candidate wouldn’t necessarily do well in that setting, and the possibility of “oops” moments would be increased. Welcome to reality TV, Beltway style.

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Ah….but dead air is not an option, so a filibuster is off the table. No answer, rebuttal or question could exceed three minutes, according to the panel. When a candidate runs out of total time, he or she has exhausted the right to speak. Remaining time at the end of the moderator-posed topics can be used for a closing statement.

The recommendations are advisory only and it will be up to the presidential debate commission and the national parties to iron out the final ground rules next year.

Chart of the Day: Boosting Corporate Tax Revenues

By The Fiscal Times Staff

The leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have all proposed increasing taxes on corporations, including raising income tax rates to levels ranging from 25% to 35%, up from the current 21% imposed by the Republican tax cuts in 2017. With Bernie Sanders leading the way at $3.9 trillion, here’s how much revenue the higher proposed corporate taxes, along with additional proposed surtaxes and reduced tax breaks, would generate over a decade, according to calculations by the right-leaning Tax Foundation, highlighted Wednesday by Bloomberg News.

Chart of the Day: Discretionary Spending Droops

By The Fiscal Times Staff

The federal government’s total non-defense discretionary spending – which covers everything from education and national parks to veterans’ medical care and low-income housing assistance – equals 3.2% of GDP in 2020, near historic lows going back to 1962, according to an analysis this week from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Chart of the Week: Trump Adds $4.7 Trillion in Debt

By The Fiscal Times Staff

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated this week that President Trump has now signed legislation that will add a total of $4.7 trillion to the national debt between 2017 and 2029. Tax cuts and spending increases account for similar portions of the projected increase, though if the individual tax cuts in the 2017 Republican overhaul are extended beyond their current expiration date at the end of 2025, they would add another $1 trillion in debt through 2029.

Chart of the Day: The Long Decline in Interest Rates

Wall Street slips, Dow posts biggest weekly loss of 2013
By The Fiscal Times Staff

Are interest rates destined to move higher, increasing the cost of private and public debt? While many experts believe that higher rates are all but inevitable, historian Paul Schmelzing argues that today’s low-interest environment is consistent with a long-term trend stretching back 600 years.

The chart “shows a clear historical downtrend, with rates falling about 1% every 60 years to near zero today,” says Bloomberg’s Aaron Brown. “Rates do tend to revert to a mean, but that mean seems to be declining.”

Chart of the Day: Drug Price Plans Compared

By The Fiscal Times Staff

Lawmakers are considering three separate bills that are intended to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. Here’s an overview of the proposals, from a series of charts produced by the Kaiser Family Foundation this week. An interesting detail highlighted in another chart: 88% of voters – including 92% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans – want to give the government the power to negotiate prices with drug companies.