Editor’s Note: Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, a resident fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
It was 60 years ago when tens of millions of Americans turned on the television or radio to see Sen. John F. Kennedy face off with Vice President Nixon in the nation’s first televised presidential debate. The assessment was that Kennedy won by looking “tan and fit,” while Nixon looked “like death warmed over.”
It was at that moment that presidential debates became a full-contact, electronic spectator sport.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that there is currently chatter about a foul-mouthed, comedian and MMA commentator seeking to host a four-hour presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. That’s right, podcaster Joe Rogan pitched the idea in a recent episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Rogan was pretty specific that there be no audience, no editing and he “would want them in there for hours.”
Former special forces sniper and retired MMA fighter Tim Kennedy was Rogan’s guest on the show. He went to Twitter, asking, “Who wants this?”
President Trump replied: “I do!”
Voters would benefit from watching a debate before they cast a ballot. As unconventional as this particular one may sound, and unlikely as it is to happen, it actually raises an important campaign conversation for three reasons:
Mail-in voting is already underway in some states. Ballots are on the table. According to Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and current Trump campaign rep, by the first debate on September 29, as many as eight million people in 16 states are expected to have begun voting. As many as 35 million people are expected to have voted by the second presidential debate on October 15.
How can voters make an informed decision without having seen the candidates debate the issues face to face? You don’t buy a car without kicking the tires and taking it for a test drive, how can you choose a president without a proper evaluation? It doesn’t make sense.
“People want to see who can hang in a debate, they don’t want to vote for a loser,” Kennedy told me on Monday.
Expanding the electorate
Politics is about addition, not subtraction. Expanding the electorate is key.
Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic started, my Sunday mornings have begun with a long bike ride in an effort to see and experience new things. Some days it’s out to Mount Vernon, some days to the Lincoln Memorial. My checklist includes adding air to the tires, water to the bottle and power to the headphones
I listen to my church service on the way out and a Joe Rogan podcast on the way home. It’s not your typical religious experience, but it certainly is eye-opening.
In between advertising manscaping products and nutrition supplements, Joe Rogan drops a lot of four-letter words and off-color jokes. His shows are long and in-depth; but Rogan is smart, well-informed, quick-witted and people like him. Lots of people. More than 200 million are estimated to listen and view his podcast monthly. Rogan has, in past episodes of his show, been critical of both Trump and Biden and had previously noted his support for then-prospective presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
His listeners are undoubtedly Republicans, Democrats, independents and the all-important undecided voters. These are blue-collar folks who might not tune into a formal presidential debate. They would tune in to this.
Encouraging critical thinking
The final point is about providing voters with the full, unfiltered truth. Town halls are valuable; Trump was participating in one Tuesday night on ABC and Biden will join CNN in a town hall on Thursday. The format tends to be moderator and audience questions with followups when needed. However, a debate is a real-time check by the candidates.
Too many voters get the news and information that shapes their views from the same sources. I am a strong advocate for testing silos of ideology, whether in media or education. As a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, I encourage my students to listen to both sides, consider other opinions and have civil conversations. I don’t expect them to change their minds or reach an agreement on issues, but they can strive to eliminate misunderstandings.
That’s what debates can do. They are opportunities for candidates to apply pressure to ideas and clear up misinterpretations.
Kennedy told me he believes an idea conceived in an echo chamber must go through the refiner’s fire that you see on a debate stage.
Vice President Biden’s team told me Monday night that he will participate in all debates sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates (the Rogan proposal is not sanctioned). This makes sense, given that Biden is ahead of Trump in the polls. Conventional wisdom is that Biden does not need this, while Trump does.
At the end of the day, Trump’s base will vote for Trump – and Biden’s base will vote for Biden. It’s the all-important Independents and undecided voters that count.
My hope is that they fully educate themselves on the candidates before they cast their ballot. The best electorate is an informed electorate.