In 2012, conservative radio host Mark Levin challenged the sitting president to a debate, but you probably don’t remember hearing about it.
“I will give $50,000 to Obama's Super PAC if he will debate me for one hour,” Levin said. “Now he’s flying all over the country in exchange for meals and handshakes and photos. People are giving a lot less than that. Just one hour, a debate. It doesn’t even have to be televised. In fact, we’ll do it right here on this program. Be very professional, be very fair, equal time, just a debate."
The amount he offered didn’t really matter. He could have offered $500,000 or $5 million, but Barack Obama would never have made his way to Levin’s studio, nor should he have — and deep down, Levin must have known that, as well. The offer was a bluff, part of a larger grift to put his name on the same level as Obama’s, to get a bit of free publicity for making an offer he knew he’d never have to pay out. It’s a tried and true approach to attention seeking that we’ve mostly come to understand for what it is: a sad ploy.
But then seven months later, the political press forgot that lesson, giving way to a new era of bluff challenges.
A year removed from his racist birther campaign, Donald Trump challenged Obama to release his college and passport “applications and records” in exchange for a $5 million donation to the charity of the president’s choice. Now, from what we now know about Trump’s charitable giving, there was little chance he would have actually followed through on the boast, but he knew he’d never have to. All he wanted was to be back in the news, and with this baseless new challenge, he got his wish. Trump was interviewed by Fox News and Forbes, and his offer was written up by The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters, and others.
Fast-forward six years, and Donald Trump is now the president and conservative media personalities regularly use his 2012 tactic to boost their own popularity. Case in point: Last week, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro challenged Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, offering $10,000 to her campaign or a charity of her choice.
— Kassy Dillon (@KassyDillon) August 8, 2018
I'd be happy to give money to her campaign for a debate. If we instead raised money for charity to make this happen, I'll bet we could easily raise $50,000. https://t.co/H1Ubb5FWo5
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) August 8, 2018
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) August 8, 2018
At first, Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to respond to Shapiro was treated as news (at least at Shapiro’s Daily Wire). Then, after Ocasio-Cortez explained why she ignored the offer, it became news again as Shapiro wrongly accused her of “slandering” him. “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions. And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one,” she tweeted. Shapiro and others on the right were quick to misread Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet as her literally accusing Shapiro of catcalling, which suggests that she was right to brush off his offer as coming from a place of bad intentions. That, and the fact that both Daily Wire articles featured cherry-picked, unflattering images of her, might lead one to think this was less about having a good-faith discussion of ideas and more just a setup.
Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.
And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one. pic.twitter.com/rsD17Oq9qe
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) August 10, 2018
The goal, just as it was in Trump’s case, in Levin’s case, and in other examples of a public figure making a big show of offering a large sum of money to someone in exchange for a debate or to complete an unnecessary task like releasing college applications (who even keeps those?), was simple: to get attention.
One thing missing from a lot of the coverage was the fact that debating random pundits is not something candidates are generally expected to do. When a number of conservative outlets argued that Ocasio-Cortez was being hypocritical in turning down Shapiro’s offer given that she had once called out her primary opponent, Rep. Joe Crowley, for his refusal to debate her, they seemed loath to acknowledge that it’s absolutely normal to expect one’s own campaign opponent to engage in debate so that their future constituents can make an educated decision when it comes to casting a ballot. That is a completely different thing from taking on anybody with a podcast.
My opponent seems to be avoiding a debate, and isn’t acknowledging me. It’s just the 2 of us.
So weekend I stopped by his office, said hello, & asked for a debate in person.
I am the 1st Congressional challenger in 14 years. The Bronx and Queens deserve to know their options. pic.twitter.com/RPVwXyn3Kc
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) May 17, 2018
If Ocasio-Cortez’s actual Republican opponent in November’s general election, Anthony Pappas, challenges her to a debate and she turns it down, then it would be fair to call out hypocrisy. But the only lesson to come out of this kerfuffle is that the debate challenge grift still works, which is why in the immediate wake of Shapiro’s challenge, we’ve already seen people including National Diversity Coalition for Trump ambassador and former member of the Pussycat Dolls Kaya Jones, “The Conservative Millennial” Allie Beth Stuckey (who recently made headlines of her own for her “satire” interview with Ocasio-Cortez), and Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens challenge Ocasio-Cortez to debates, with Owens even making an “offer” of $100,000 to charity for the opportunity. “I really don’t care if Ocasio-Cortez debates me,” Stuckey acknowledged on Fox News. “The point was to kind of call her out.” It’s a way to get attention, and you can’t really fault any of the people throwing themselves into the discussion for trying to make the most of it.
But it’s not newsworthy, and it’s not a good look for mainstream political media to fall back into the same trap that helped elevate Trump to the national political stage — not for his ideas, but for his stunts. There’s no shortage of content for the national news media to focus on without rewarding and encouraging the WWE-ification of our democracy.
Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based writer with an interest in media, technology, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy.