At 7 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time on June 27, more than four months before Election Day, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will spend 90 minutes on CNN airing rehearsed talking points in front of a moderator in two-minute soundbites in a studio empty but for the production crew and campaign staff.

Happily, I will be in an airport gate area when the broadcast starts, and my significant hearing impairment (I am deaf in my right ear and have a severe loss in my left) will preclude me from watching the event on my phone and listening to boarding announcements at the same time. On the plane, I won’t be able to get the live CNN feed, but I may be drinking nonetheless.

Once upon a time, political candidate debates were crucial events for voters and candidates alike. Debates were the forums where voters learned where their candidates stood on the issues that mattered most to them, and candidates had the opportunity to sell themselves to a wide audience.

Merritt Hamilton Allen

Merritt Hamilton Allen

The optics of the televised debate became etched into history with the first presidential debate of 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy. Nixon refused makeup, didn’t shave, and injured his knee immediately before the broadcast (which would later require hospitalization for a staph infection). While he spoke with conviction and from an analytical perspective won the debate on content, he looked ghastly.

The young Senator from Massachusetts looked fresh and handsome. His points were not as compelling but he looked much better. As a result, viewers believed Kennedy won the debate.

After 1960, televised Presidential debates fell out of fashion until 1976 (Nixon learned his lesson). Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter brought them back and preparation evolved into an art form, with highly-paid consultants putting candidates through tightly controlled rehearsals requiring extensive non-disclosure agreements. The “Three Cs” – cosmetics, control, and commercials – were drilled into candidates.

Somewhere around the year 2000, candidates got wise to the debate trap. Debates are, above all, risky. Debates do not have participation trophies. There is always a winner and a loser. We began to see candidates leading in the polls declining debate invitations in down-ticket races.

This trend accelerated, as all bad political trends have, throughout the 2010s. Setting up debates became more a protracted negotiation to minimize risk, than an opportunity to connect with voters. And the candidates themselves ignored the moderators more and more and simply began spewing their own talking points rather than addressing the question asked.

In the first presidential debate of 2020, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News may as well have not been there as President Trump simply ignored him and spoke as he pleased. That debate resulted in the introduction of the mute button on candidate’s mics to try and bring some semblance of control into the proceedings. With that, all pretense of calling this type of forum a “debate” fell away.

And with that, the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer has a role. Formed in 1987, the CPD is an independent organization whose primary mission is to ensure general election debates are held among the leading contenders for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States. The purpose is so the voters may view debates and dialogue among their candidates for the top offices in the land.

The CPD inspired debate commissions in many foreign countries, including emerging democracies. Debates International, which represents 40 democracies and emerging democracies, had this to say about the CPD: “The CPD does not simply organize debates. The Commission establishes standards for integrity and professionalism that inspire debate organizers across the globe. The CPD’s commitment to transparent and participatory democracy reaches beyond U.S. borders. It offers a model to follow for both emerging and strong democracies.

“The CPD debates are a testimony to the power of democracy. They provide a neutral and accessible platform and guarantee that the electoral process is representative of the will of the American people. This platform has been key to building more robust democracies around the world, inspiring leaders and citizens to value and defend electoral transparency.”

The September 2020 Cleveland debate began with a lie and a flouting of the agreed-to rules before Chris Wallace could ask his first question. All attendees were required to have a full clinical Covid-19 test at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic the morning of the debate. None of the Trump contingent arrived in time to complete the test but stated their results were negative. Then they all removed their masks.

The nation would find out later that Trump had indeed tested positive for Covid-19 earlier. He would be hospitalized at Walter Reed three days after the debate. By that time, the White House outbreak had infected four-star military officers, delayed the U.S. Senate session by two weeks and placed White House staff members in the hospital.

But this isn’t about epidemiology, or what you think about the pandemic. It’s that the Trump camp lied and ignored the rules before the event even began. That Cleveland debate was the end of transparent Presidential debates in the United States. The CPD had no role in the 2024 debates; the campaigns negotiated with CNN and ABC directly for the two debates voters will see.

What can voters expect? Little that we haven’t seen already. Two elderly men, one angrier than the other, trading insults and promises they won’t keep.

I can’t tell you not to watch it. I can suggest you find other ways to select your President in 2024 than sitting through 90 minutes of pre-scripted talking points followed by 90 minutes of media analysis based on campaign blather.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appeared regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run one head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Let’s not even call this a debate

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