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A presidential debate is not a boxing match

Our presidents are not pugilists, but politicians. For the sake of our democracy, let's stop confusing the two.

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    People watch live broadcast of the first US presidential debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a cafe in Beijing on Sept. 27, 2016.
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"Both sides are hoping to land a punch," said Savannah Guthrie on NBC.

"When his counterpunches didn't land," said George Stephanopoulos on ABC, "he got frustrated."

And if you think these journalists are talking about a boxing match, think again.

"Vice-Presidents Rumble in Virginia," read the CNN scrawl on the bottom of the screen.

That's right: this is not news coverage of a heavyweight boxing championships. Believe it or not, it is now the standard way of covering political debates.  

I have been watching for more than 20 years as we Americans have been turning presidential debates into a World Wrestling Federation event. As far back as 1996, in an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled "Fighting Words," I challenged all of us, citizens and journalists alike, to find another metaphor besides boxing to describe presidential debates. 

Following the first debate between President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger Senator Bob Dole in 1996, I argued that this "old and tired metaphor is wrong on every count."

So let's bury it.  

Boxing in a ring traditionally observes certain rules, such as wearing gloves and not hitting "below the belt." In the 2016 election, all rules have been broken. Because this is the dirtiest election ever, magnified by more campaign money than ever, it looks more like a bar-room brawl or a back-alley knife fight than anything remotely resembling professional boxing.

Even if it did resemble professional boxing, however, a boxer and a politician have fundamentally different jobs. It is actually more important that presidential candidates, once in office, use more brain than brawn, and act more like bridge-builders than boxers.

The starkest difference perhaps is that, when the bell rings on the final round of a boxing match, the champion's job is over. However, when the final vote is counted on Election Day, the winning candidate's job has just begun.

So, after witnessing even presidential elections be described as boxing matches, I believe more than ever that our political narrative must leave the ring and return to where it belongs: the public square. We need to find new metaphors that challenge our leaders to become visionary public servants, not that encourage them – and ultimately us – to become mindless fighting machines.

Fortunately, we have time before the next debate to sharpen our prose. Let's find a way to describe the next encounter between Clinton and Trump — and other adversaries for state and national offices — as "contests" or "competitions," "face-offs" or "races," "performances" or even "job interviews."

After all, we are not all boxing fans who follow the ups-and-downs of the heavyweight fighters. But we are all citizens of the United States of America. Our presidents are not pugilists, but politicians. 

For the sake of our democracy, let's stop confusing the two.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of Leading Through Conflict and The Reunited States of America.  

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