Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why I Don't Care about the Presidential Debates (and what to do about them)

  1. They are not "debates," they are serial press conferences. The debate structure used by both parties is to have a panel of "moderators" ask questions which the candidates answer. This format is guaranteed to be superficial. It is designed for the consultant's favorite trick, deflection. If he asks you about the Iraq War, talk about the weather in Portugal. Hence the feeling that no one is answering the questions.
  2. They are not focused. They have a scattergun concept. Now a question on the war, now one on health care, now the deficit. There is no attempt to stay focused on a single subject long enough to get beyond a few handy catch phrases.
  3. The moderators/questioners are, for the most part, buffoons. The result is that many questions are attempts at "gotchas" that end up simply silly. (Is Wal-Mart a good or bad thing for America? or What do you dislike about America?) The best response to questions like this is to look at the interviewer with a bemused expression and say, "Now, that is a stupid question." If we must have a question/answer format, then bring in a questioner with a substantial mind, like Edward R. Murrow. (Yes, I know that Murrow is dead but, even in his current state, he has a more active and probing mind than Chris Matthews or Wolf Blitzer.)
  4. It is impossible to have a debate with eight debaters. These are just cattle calls, talent shows for older folk who can't sing. The only things that can be gleaned from watching are vague impressions. (Wow, John McCain is really bald. Do ya think Mitt Romney is a robot? I didn't know Obama was so tall. Dennis Kucinich kinda looks like a hobbit.)
  5. The major candidates are diminished by appearing with the flotsam. I know that's a demeaning comment. I don't just back major candidates, have often backed people who were not the consensus choice of the media. Still, does it make Hillary Clinton look more presidential standing next to Mike Gravel?

So, What Would I Do?
No one has asked me to draft presidential debate formats and I wouldn't respect anyone who did. However, there are many scholastic debates formats that have been proven effective at encouraging enlightened discussions.
  1. The role of the moderator should be to moderate. Keep the candidates to their time limits and punish them for interrupting. That's it. No jokes, no trying to upstage the candidates, no silly questions.
  2. Limit a two-hour debate to no more than 4 topics. The topics are chosen by the candidates. In a two-person debate each candidate would select two topics. In an eight person cattle call, give the candidates a list of twenty topics and ask them to rank them. The top three or four are chosen. Part of examining a candidate is the topics he/she considers most important.
  3. Devote enough time to a topic to gain some depth. Five minutes is barely enough time to express a complex thought on a intricate issue. Two hours, eight people, three topics equals five minutes per candidate per topic. Asking for one-sentence responses is absolutely insane. Ideally, two candidates will go back and forth on a topic for half an hour before moving on.
  4. The candidates know the topics ahead of time. Whatever is the source of the inane notion that the candidates should not know the questions ahead of time? It only encourages sloganeering. A properly formatted debate gives ample time for thinking on one's feet without keeping the candidates ignorant of the subjects. Let's make presidential debates open-book tests.
  5. Allow/encourage the candidates to ask questions of their opponents. This is supposed to be a debate, damn it, where we are trying to identify the differences between the candidates.
In two (or three) person general election debates, I would like to see a variation of the classic Lincoln-Douglas debate format.
  • Candidate A: 5 minutes to present his position on the topic
  • Candidate B: 2-3 minutes to ask questions that Candidate A must answer on the spot
  • Candidate B: 5 minutes to present his opposition to the topic
  • Candidate A: 2-3 minutes to ask questions that Candidate B must answer on the spot
  • Candidate A: 4 minutes to rebut Candidate B's position
  • Candidate B: 6 minutes to rebut Candidate A's positions and present closing comments
  • Candidate A: 2 minutes closing comments
  • Repeat, alternating which candidate starts
That is 28 minutes per topic, enough time to cover four indepth topics in two hours.

This system would not work in the pre-primary cattle calls. Best is a simple round-robin format where each candidate is given 4 minutes to address the topic. The candidates may gain an addition 30-seconds to ask a question of one specific opponent who is then given 30-seconds to respond.

If I were king, this is how I would format our presidential debates. Of course, if I were king we wouldn't need any presidents.

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