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Improving the debates

Last Thursday’s Presidential debate was widely panned for its ridiculous format. Seriously? Two-minute responses and one-minute followups? And this is supposed to transcend talking points?

The Lehrer debate felt much meatier to me. It clearly showcased two men who had very different (but both quite substantial) views on foreign policy, and allowed them to contrast those views at length. Still, any amount of time spent paying attention to the moderator in a Presidential debate is wasted time, and Lehrer had to do a fair amount of refereeing to keep the candidates in line.

CJR’s got some excellent ideas for shaking up the debate format. I’ve got one more:

What if we allotted to each of the candidates a block of time — say 40 minutes — and allow them to apportion it however they’d like? Engage a moderator merely to pause the debate and send the candidates in another direction if they get stuck on a particular topic, but mostly allow them to steer the debate where they’d like. Each candidate could be wired with a mic that detects when he’s speaking and winds down the clock, and both the candidates and the viewers can see how much time each one has left.

You could even take this a little further by employing a team of fact-checkers who work furiously during the debate to spot misstatements of fact. If a candidate is discovered to have fudged the truth, the misstatement is revealed during the course of the debate and the candidate is docked a minute. (This would be difficult to enforce and cause a lot of partisan sniping, so the plan might be better without, but I offer it as a possibility.)

What say you, Snarkmind?

October 9, 2008 / Uncategorized


LOVE the idea of fact-checkers — who should have the ability both to insta-research claims and to respond to a candidate when they say something that isn’t true.

Both Palin and McCain accused Obama of supporting health care mandates for small businesses, which he doesn’t. Obama was eventually able to explain his position on it, which was well-covered in the Democratic primaries. Ditto the 42K tax stuff. Imagine if Tom Brokaw had had Chuck Todd next to him to ask, “Governor McCain, would you like to clarify that claim, since Obama’s health care plan says X?”

Less certain about a 40 minute block. It seems to me that 5 minute responses (where again, a moderator can interrupt or clarify) with 2-minute counterresponses (where the moderator could do the same) would be sufficient.

The problem, I think, with the Brokaw debate is that it was an awkward hybrid of townhall-style and moderated debate, with Brokaw sticking his thumb on the scales whenever it suited him. The McCain people were upset because McCain is demonstrably better in townhall, and the Obama people should have been upset, because Brokaw was up McCain’s ass for half the night, cracking up at McCain’s jokes and chastising only Obama when he ran over time.

Not sure I’m 100% sold on the 40-minute blocks either, but I like the direction, b/c it would begin to give candidates choices and thus force them to reveal things about themselves, their priorities, their style.

What I hate abt debates is that we still pretend they’re about getting information, when they’re really not. We know what the candidates’ policy proposals are. And even if we don’t, hearing it from them in this super-cautious, super-constrained environment is not the best way to learn.

What we HOPE for during debates is flashes of insight. I loved the final question of the town hall debate: “What don’t you know?” Of course, it’s nearly impossible to get candidates to answer a question like that in any serious way. But if I was redesigning the debates, doing *exactly that* would be my goal.

I like the idea of the 40 minute blocks and the independent fact-checking. However, I’m getting a bit tired of the idea that idea that we’re just electing a single person…if there’s one thing that the GWB terms have taught me is that the administration matters as much as the man.

What I want to see is the candidates being the frontmen for the debate, but bringing along anyone they plan on including within their administration (VP, cabinet, etc). I want to see who they trust, how they listen, and how they make decisions based on that information.

It struck me the other day that even sophisticated, high-information voters watch the debates for the same coarse reasons some people watch auto racing or boxing matches: we want to see the candidates trade blows/paint, and we want either a knockout or a crash. We want to see bodies hit the floor. Or as Jon Stewart said last night, “Country second, ass-kicking first!”

That’s why for diehard partisans and horserace pundits, candidates can never be aggressive enough. It’s all about drawing blood and putting the other guy away. It’s not sufficient that these guys are boxing each other — everyone wants the two opponents to “take the gloves off.” It seems as though nobody actually knows what that means.

It runs exactly counter to the other reason people watch the debates, which is for reassurance. We want to know that the men and women on stage, especially but not only our preferred candidate, are capable of reacting under some kind of pressure, that they can engage with the concerns of everyday Americans and a critical press, and that they can do so smoothly, confidently, and gracefully, as befits someone who is going to be under a good deal more pressure for the next four or more years. Every once in a while you will hear a pundit or a voter express approval of a candidate’s ability to reassure the public in this way, only to get drowned out by the vicarious bully next to him or her who wants to detail every way in which one candidate didn’t completely gut the other. Politics can be bloodsport, but that’s less because of the egos on stage than because of the need for good video and good copy.

In fact, violence, bloopers, dramatic tension, reassurance — this is nothing more or less than what attracts us to television at all.

One of my arguments in favor of the time allotment is that it adds an element of gamesmanship that’s currently lacking from the debates. This might be the high-school debater in me piping up again.

I’d kind of like to see “Meet the Press” style debates. No audience, just a moderator and the two (or four) candidates. The moderator has flexibility to ask questions and follow-ups, but otherwise it’s generally a free-for-all.

The most important part of the debate is that if possible, the two competing candidates should sit right next to each other. This already legendary debate between Jim Webb and Lindsey Graham on MTP is a strong reference.

Honestly, why do we need the rules at all?

What if we asked two adult human beings to walk out on the stage together (or sit in comfortable chairs) and have a 90-minute discussion about the election? If one or both of them couldn’t navigate the basic social interaction of that unstructured format, wouldn’t that be almost a disqualification for the office? If one is disruptive asshole who doesn’t play well with others, wouldn’t that be worth knowing?

When one of them sits down with Putin to bring us back from the brink, there won’t be any moderator there to tell Vlad his 90 seconds are up. A candidate who can’t, through force of personality, take charge of an unstructured event and turn it into productive exchange isn’t a worthy leader.

One man’s “disruptive asshole” is another’s “assertive leader.” And competing candidates have every incentive not to observe the cooperative principle of language. At the very least, you need a moderator, a participant in the conversation, who has an interest in a structured and productive outcome, not one favoring one side or the other.

This is why, Dr Strangelove scenarios aside, diplomatic talks are 1) organized by a third party when they’re contentious and 2) virtually always pretty structured.

I think debates between two adversaries without preconditions could be smart, but talks without any preparations at all — that is, any rules about what is to be discussed and how it will be approached — would be a disaster.

Todd says…

I’m not a regular reader here; I just happened upon this discussion by accident, coming over from Matt’s excellent “Money Meltdown” site (thanks so much for that, by the way). But like every solipsistic, opinionated soul on the web, thought I’d throw in my two cents…

Leaving aside for the moment the two-party dictatorship of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which guarantees that independent candidates are excluded, let’s just talk about the current format of the Republican/Democrat television debates:

The way television debates are run today is an absolute scandal and a betrayal of American democracy. To understand why, let’s talk about how debates used to be conducted. In the famous 1858 Lincoln/Douglass debates for the U.S. Senate, the candidates held seven debates, and each debate lasted three hours. The format went like this: one candidate spoke for one hour, then the other candidate was allowed an hour and a half to reply, after which the first candidate was allowed another half and hour for a rebuttal. That’s a total of 21 hours of debate. And that was for one Illinois Senate race. And believe it not, the 1858 debate format was actually considered a “short” debate at the time. In 1854 the same candidates had held debates that lasted seven hours. At one point in one of these longer debates, Lincoln even excused the listeners to go home and have dinner, and then return to hear the rest of the speeches (which they did).

Two minutes? What is that? It’s a sound bite. Why not speak for an hour about health care? Or defense? Tell us your entire plan for ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Outline your plan for the economy and the housing crisis. For education. For taxation. Each one of these issues alone is worth 40 minutes at least.

I disagree that most people are really that well informed about the candidates’ platforms. Most voters just think they know what their candidate stands for, and they simply cross their fingers and go in and vote. Television debates are the one opportunity most people will have to really hear the issues before they make a decision.

The debates shouldn’t be a game of Nerfball. The candidates should be required to speak at length and lay out their platforms in detail; they should be put on the spot. We certainly need more than just three debates. 40 minutes — or something like that — would certainly be a good start.

OK, thanks for reading my rant.

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