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Tension City: The Televised Presidential Debates

Tension City: The Televised Presidential Debate

Notre Dame Forum 2016: Debating our Future

Wednesday, 14 September, 7 p.m., DPAC
“Healthy democracies foster serious, open debate among candidates of the issues,” Father Jenkins said. “Our focus on this year’s presidential debates will provide an opportunity to reflect on the issues, evaluate the candidates and consider the character of our nation’s electoral process.”

Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C.

The American flag, prominent and proud. Spotlights casting a golden glow. Audience hushed in anticipation. Some of the biggest names in American presidential election history. And you probably haven’t even heard of them. They are the moderators of presidential debates past.

The first installment of this year’s Notre Dame Forum, “Debating Our Future” brought together the iconic voices of Jim Lehrer and Bob Schlieffer; the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown; former president of the League of Women Voters, Dorothy Ridings; and our very own president, Fr. Jenkins, as moderator.

Wednesday night’s event set the stage for the upcoming presidential debates on September 26th, October 9th, and October 19th, bringing transparency to the debate system, explaining the selection and role of the moderator, and highlighting the importance of the debates in the American democratic process. 

Over the years, the debates have evolved to not only give the moderator more leeway over the choice of questions, but also, in the words of Jim Lehrer, to make candidates feel “free to engage, free to ask questions, and free not to shut up.”  Dialogue, questions, and “real debate” between candidates, while encouraged, have made the debates increasingly difficult to moderate.

According to Brown, only “independent, smart and experienced journalists,” are chosen as moderators. The moderators then prepare hundreds of potential questions, based on independent research, consultations with think tanks, and interviews with policy experts. According to Lehrer, a moderator must have broad contextual knowledge in order to facilitate a fair and constructive debate.  The moderator is not just a referee, however.  According to Scheiffer, the moderator should, at once, bring out the candidates’ positions on issues and allow the audience to see the real people behind the podiums.

Why are the debates important, you may ask?  The majority of voters know the issues, know the policy proposals, and know how they will be voting on Novermber 8th.  However, according to Lehrer, people want most to know what they can expect from either candidate as president: “Do they have the right stuff…to carry out the awesome responsibilities of the presidency?”

“The vote we cast for president is different than any other vote we cast,” said Scheiffer.  In choosing who to vote for, he stated that while party and policy play a major role, the most important factor for the average voter is “who I would be most comfortable with in a time of crisis?”  A question the debates will hopefully help to answer. 

 “The debates are the only opportunity we have to see the candidates on the same stage, at the same time, in the same place, answering the same questions,” said Ridings. The debates are “a powerful reminder of how luck to live in a country where we have the freedom to hear [such an] exchange of ideas.”

“Representative democracy only works if we have an informed electorate…[the debates] are key instruments for the citizens of this country to exercise the power which was given to them, and to all of us when this country was founded,” Ridings concluded. “[Debates] are central to building a stronger democracy.”

The Notre Dame Forum will be hosting presidential debates watches on September 26, October 9 and October 19, as well as for the vice presidential debate on October 4.  The General Election for the President of the United States is on November 8. Click here for more information on how to register to vote or obtain an absentee ballot through ND Votes.  

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MJ Jackson

Notre Dame

Meadow Jackson is a senior at the University of Notre Dame studying Political Science, Japanese, and the Art of Procrastination. Her goals in life are to work toward world peace, run a marathon, and somehow earn a lifetime supply of coffee (not necessarily in that order). She loves learning languages, traveling, eating copious amounts of vegetarian food, and finding hole-in-the-wall cafés in all corners of the world (where she can do all of these things at once). Feel free to email her at any time at [email protected] (especially if you have any information on how to win a lifetime supply of coffee ).
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