Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How to Improve the Presidential Debates

Over the years I have been continually disappointed by the way our presidential debates are organized. They really aren't debates at all, but glorified question and answer sessions lorded over by the usual Beltway media suspects or the hackneyed "town hall" format which has always seemed more like a high-stakes version of Donahue.  Candidates are allowed to interrupt and talk over each other, devolving the proceedings into a shouting match at times.  

Some of the smaller aspects and rules are just stupid.  Why can't the candidates have notes?  I'd rather hear the candidates articulate their positions more coherently than rack their brains for the right talking point.  The way the debates are televised, with the split screen, leads to way too much analysis of what the non-speaking candidate is doing with his face, and not enough on the substance of what is said.

With these deficiencies in mind, I'd like to offer my own debate format.  In this format, the moderator will be just that, a moderator, not an inquisitor.  The moderator will not be a journalist, but a prominent citizen of high character and respect.  The candidates will each begin the debate with fifteen minutes to lay out the case for why they should be elected president, with the mic of the non-speaking candidate turned off to help prevent interruptions.  After each case is presented, there will be a five minute period for the candidates to prepare rebuttals.  During that time, the cameras will not be allowed to show the candidates jotting down their thoughts.  After the preparation time ends, each candidate will get ten minutes to present a rebuttal.  Following the rebuttal, there will two minutes of preparation time for final statements.  The candidate who gave the second rebuttal will give the first closing statement, so as to not let one candidate always get the last word.  Closing statements will last five minutes.  Throughout the speeches, cameras will only be allowed to show the candidate who is speaking.  After the set times for speeches runs out, candidates will get a ten-second grace period.  Once that is over, their microphones will be cut off, and they will not be able to appeal for more time.

The advantages of this approach are many.  The candidates themselves, not journalists or undecided yahoos off the street will effectively set the agenda for the debate.  This format will also force the candidates to lay out a sustained argument for why they should be president, rather than just offering talking point answers on the usual issues presented by the questioners.  Candidates will not be able to undercut their opponent through interruptions and interjections, and will not be able to bully the moderator as Romney did so effectively in the first debate.  

I think the American public deserves a real debate on the issues, not a media circus.  Until we change the rules to be more like what I have described, we'll keep getting the usual disappointment.

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