Note: The views and opinions expressed herein as those of the author and not necessarily those of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or the U. S. Government.
The readership will kindly indulge a fellow citizen while he summarizes what all of us already know in our heart of hearts: The presidential debates have it all wrong.
1. The debates are not really debates at all; they are multi-candidate press conferences dressed up as a strange juxtaposition of the WWF, the UFC, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
2. The moderators are not moderators; they are reporters trying to conduct multiple one-on-one interviews simultaneously.
3. The format simply does not facilitate engagement in matters of substance. Over and over, the electorate is treated to touching autobiographies of the candidate’s rise from disadvantage and obscurity to the point at which he or she now occupies a place on the presidential “debating” stage. Over and over, the electorate is referred to the candidate’s website for details. Over and over, the electorate is treated to meaningless platitudes designed to fit into obligatory nine-second audio bytes or 27-word statements for print media.
The solution: Fix these three problems as follows:
1. Organize the debates around each of the following three topics: The US economy, US domestic issues other than the economy, and national security and US interactions with the world. (We ostensibly do this already, but the reality is very different because moderators do not insist that candidates stay on topic.) Give each candidate seven minutes in which to present his or her program, including, if he or she wishes, a PowerPoint presentation that will allow them to “show” as well as “tell”. Follow the session with five minutes of succinct questions from fellow candidates.
2. Insist that moderators moderate. Their principle job is not to be interlocutors. They are to ensure that the candidate stays on topic and within time constraints. The second a time limit expires, the moderator sees that the candidate’s microphone goes cold. Fellow candidates who present follow-up questions are allowed to ask, over the course of the debate, a fixed number of questions. They may ask the questions to whichever candidate they wish, with two caveats: First, the question must focus specifically on the presentation just made by a fellow candidate. Second, when the questioner’s quota is expended, that’s it; no more questions for the rest of the debate. Moderators enforce both of these restrictions. As a result, candidates will not be inclined to waste their questions on frivolous matters. They will need to pick their battles wisely.
One can imagine objections to the proposed revision:
- The proposed format will not allow opportunity for substantive exchanges. Not so. The proposed format will do more to ensure more substantive exchanges than any that have occurred since the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1860.
- The proposed format is unwieldy for a live televised event. Not really. Seven minutes of focused presentation plus five minutes for questions from other candidates, times, say, eight candidates equals 96 minutes. That still leaves 24 minutes—almost a half an hour—for commercial breaks and other perfunctory housekeeping matters during the course of a two-hour broadcast. Moreover, as the field narrows, the time allotted for candidate presentations and questions will expand. The narrowing of the field will also allow time for moderators to ask “prerogative of the chair” questions on issues that they feel have been glossed over. In this role, the moderators will realize their highest calling as keepers of the fourth estate.
- Ratings will plummet, because the electorate will be too easily bored. Perhaps. But that is a problem that occasions soul-searching on the part of the electorate. (Question for the electorate: “Do we want a democracy or do we merely want to be entertained?”)
The presidential debates are essential to our democracy. Americans need to hear directly from the candidates. However, those who seek the to be the nation’s chief magistrate must be required to make their cases in a truly you-can-run-but-you-can’t-hide format, in which the success of their appeals do not hinge on their ability to demonstrate their feistiness, to produce one-liners that will be played ad nauseum throughout the next 24-hour news cycle, or even upon their ability to spout off endless sequences of facts and figures that mean nothing to anyone—including themselves. Will seven minutes per candidate per topic tell the electorate everything it needs to know about a candidate? Probably not. However, it will go a long way toward ensuring that the electorate actually gets to hear the candidate’s case—and toward ensuring that the candidate actually has a chance to present it.
Full Citation for this Article: Mattox, John Mark (2016) "Fixing the Presidential Debates," SquareTwo, Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 2016), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMattoxDebates.html, accessed <give access date>.
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