Debates Are Ridiculous; Let’s Move On

Associated Press/Pool-Win McNamee – Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

A half century ago, the idea of televising a debate between two Presidential candidates was breakthrough thinking. Beginning in 2016, I think we can use our new and emerging media to do a better job, and, presumably, to choose our new leader with greater insight, wisdom, and knowledge.

Let’s begin with some pre-reading materials. During the primary process, each candidate for president should be required to complete and submit a job application. The application should require work history, evidence of compliance with laws (for example, age and place of birth), and so on. Prior to each party’s national convention, each candidate should be required to clearly present his or her platform, in detail, by category, complete with data and factual references (given the dynamic nature of our economy and such, each candidate may revise this document at pre-appointed intervals). Then, each candidate should be required to present the platform by speaking directly to the American public, on television, without interruption. If we’re clever, I’m sure we can come up with a web-based extension of the written and televised presentation. With this mechanism in place, I can easily research where each candidate stands on, say, Syria, or health care. Of course, the people ought to have some digital means of asking questions, and the candidates should provide some reasonable means of answering their questions.

Next up, let’s change our rules regarding the use of television advertising. Whether by law or by policy, candidates should be required to use their commercial airtime to explain their own views, and not to criticize or attack the other candidate (this higher standard should be applied to all elections, at least on television commercials where stations often set policies with regard to acceptable material).

With all of that in place, let’s rethink the debate. Running a grudge match is a waste of everybody’s time, and so is allowing candidates to drift from the questions to their own message points. Candidates are welcome to speechify, but that’s not the purpose of the debates. Instead, I would either eliminate the debates and replace them with one-on-one conversations with everyday people and vetted journalists, or reformat them entirely. Last night’s Bob Schieffer format stopped the candidates from moving around and nearly slugging one another. That’s a start. A quiet, reasoned conversation; mostly, closeups of each candidate so we can study their faces; a journalist who asks the questions and is not overwhelmed by the power of candidates to disobey the rules–this format provides a better opportunity to study the candidates and their presentations. And let’s not call it a debate, or think of it as debate, because we should discourage the unseemly role modeling by potential leaders of the free world. There should be no winner or loser. Instead, the debate ought to be a skillfully moderated conversation by people, each of who believes that he or she can successfully lead the nation and play a very significant role on the world stage. That’s enough for me.

But there’s a piece missing: verification of facts. I’m not very interested in what the network’s commentators have to say about who “won” because the debate should not be reduced to such simple-minded thinking. Instead, immediately following the debate, I’d like to see an intelligent, compelling presentation of what each candidate said, and whether it was factually correct, kinda hazy, or utter nonsense. If the candidates understood that they would be immediately followed by an independent fact-check seen on TV, they would be more likely to curb their fanciful interpretations of fact.

Do we need to see two presidential candidates “go at it” as if they were wrestlers? I think we can do a lot better, and I know we possess the tools and the need to approach the whole intersection between presidential candidates and media. But do we possess the will to shift the entire election process into the 21st century?

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