The Debate of the Century

By James Jimenez

It is said, often sarcastically, that when the U.S. sneezes, the Philippines catches a cold. By dint of shared history, our two countries are inextricably linked, with Philippine politicians often taking cues from their American counterparts. And if we’re being honest, the outcome of the next American presidential elections will have a massively tangible impact on our continuing relationship with America – and by extension, on our relationship with that other superpower.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the upcoming debates between the Republican and Democratic front-runners – insofar as they are likely to be a bellwether for the coming elections – are going to be a matter of great interest.

Staking out their positions

The incumbent’s play will most likely be to try to sharpen the focus on his administration’s wins over the past four years. This will include the better-than-expected economic recovery and job creation post-pandemic, the massive infrastructure investments made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – a great achievement in and of itself – as well as the administration’s various climate change initiatives. The incumbent will probably also tout his administration’s achievements in healthcare reforms, responses to COVID-19, and in the field of international diplomacy, particularly emphasizing American alliances in response to global conflicts.

The opposing candidate, seeking a return to the Oval Office, will certainly go heavy on criticisms of the incumbent’s tenure and, in all likelihood, age. No surprise there. He is likely to harp on the issues of immigration and border security, as well as inflation and the cost of living. It will also not be surprising – given his predilections – for the opposing candidate to repeat his claims regarding the last presidential elections, as well as allegations that the justice system has been weaponized. Over-all, the Republican will try to capitalize on the dissatisfaction with the incumbent – a phenomenon nicknamed “vibescession” – and to present himself as the only candidate capable of restoring what he portrays as the country’s lost stability and prosperity.

The incumbent, on the other hand, will have to fend off those attacks while also presenting a compelling vision of the future under a second Democratic term.

Why this matters

Debates play a crucial role in democratic elections for several reasons. First, they provide a unique opportunity for voters to see candidates side by side, comparing their policies, demeanor, and ability to handle pressure. This aspect of debates was dramatically illustrated during the first ever televised American presidential debate – the one between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. Everyone agreed that Nixon looked curiously passive and sweated profusely, while Kennedy came off as young, dynamic, and cool under pressure. Needless to say, the consensus was that Kennedy trounced Nixon.

Secondly, debates force candidates – at least ideally – to articulate their policies clearly and concisely, allowing voters to understand their platforms beyond campaign slogans and advertisements. In reality, however, candidates usually just fall back on their prepared speeches anyway. However, putting them in an adversarial situation will, at least, expose them to challenge from their opponent, opening up the possibility of more substantive discussions.

And finally, debates tend to deepen interest in the electoral process, leading to higher levels of voter engagement. This is particularly important in the case of undecided voters who, oftentimes, might not even vote at all. On top of all that, the coverage and fact-checking by the media provide additional layers of scrutiny and analysis which are helpful for voters struggling to discern truth from rhetoric.

A defining moment

In a very real sense, the upcoming 2024 presidential debate is set to be a defining moment in the race to the presidency. With high stakes and contrasting visions for America’s future, the head-to-head encounter between the candidates will not only highlight the differences between them but will also serve as a vital tool for American voters to make informed decisions. For us here in the Philippines, it will be preview of the next administration and, therefore, an exceedingly interesting moment for democracy observers.

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