Thursday, September 25, 2008

Let's Just Cancel All of the Debates ...

If we're not going to hold a real debate.

I confess not to have done any significant research into the original Lincoln-Douglas Debates. But I'm not going to let that stop me from talking about my impression of them as far as providing an ideal format for real debate. My ideas as presented below are tenative. I welcome helpful suggestions and contributions from my readers.

Here's how I think the Lincoln Douglas events would look like if they were to provide a model for debates to serve our contemporary American electorate:
  • Candidate A with microphone

  • Candidate B with microphone

  • Time-Keeper equipped with suitable technologies such as a microphone, stopwatch, calculator or laptop.

  • Audience (impartial, balanced, representative of current registered voters).

  • Program would be broadcast on C-Span, and terminate with the debate's conclusion. No pundits or commentators would be provided by C-Span.
There would be three parts to the debate. It would go something like this:
  1. Opening Statement: Candidates would take turns delivering a short opening statement, say 5-10 minutes.

  2. Cross Examination: Candidates would take turns posing questions to the other. All answers would be subject to follow-up questions. The questions themselves could be questioned or challenged. Notice, I didn't provide for moderator(s), interrogator(s), and questioner. The timekeeper's roll is restricted to only tracking the time each candidate consumes so as to assure equity and to prevent interruptions. Whenever one candidate engages in a filibuster or monologue, his opponent merely raises his hand to the timekeeper who can then direct traffic.

  3. Concluding Statement: Time would be appropriated to allow a five minute concluding statement from each candidate.
It's pretty straight forward and not excatly nuclear science, is it? Let me make a few comments.

The provision of a timekeeper implies only a passive role of a referee. He or she is not a moderator, questioner, nor interlocutor. No question is asked of a candidate, except by the other candidate.

In our modern media world, all potential moderators and questioners have public personas themselves, sometimes approaching or exceeding the weight of the candidates. Any moderator - any moderator - is a self-conscious performer on the debate stage. If his or her role is to pose questions to the candidates, the audience will be judging the moderator by scrutinizing the balance, fairness, and equity of the questions.

Additionally, if one candidate is perceived to significantly outshine or outperform the other, a moderator may feel that he/she should step in, separate the candidates, introduce another soothing question or take some other compensatory measures to re-balance the playing field. This peace-keeping interference would only distract the public from discovering significant differences between the candidates.

All moderators are themselves also running for public approval and amount to distractions from the candidates themselves. In short, proactive moderators inevitably become part of the story. Moderators are arbitrary, third-party intrusions in an otherwise un-buffered process by which the public tries to measure the comparative strengths of each candidate.

My model also does not include the so-called "town meeting" debates, in which candidates are expected to respond to written or verbal questions from members of the live or TV audience. The problem of these types of events is that gotcha' questions come from anonymous sources with little degrees of public responsibility. Programming networks have an affinity for these freak shows because they generate hot-button topics designed to embarrass one candidate or another.

The beauty of restricting the source of questions to the candidates is they have to take responsibility themselves. They will be adversely judged by the audience if they ask unduly personal or insulting questions of their opponents. In the template proposed above, any 'dumb' question will reflect poorly on the candidate asking it. The candidates themselves should frame the debate with their own Q & A.

Finally, by restricting the debate broadcasts to C-SPAN facilities assures a neutral post-debate programming. At the very least, TV viewers will have to take their own initiative, and make their own choices as to tuning in to post-debate coverage on other network channels.
If they want network pundits to score the debate, designate winners and losers, viewers will have to switch to their own preferred channel. They cannot sit passively in front of their teevee and absorb sound-bites the network program has selected for them. Too often, panels of post-debate pundits say the things that TV viewers then take away from the debate. You can't shut up the talking heads, of course. But requiring audiences to choose their own pundits by the process of switching channels might help communicate the idea that commentary is different and separate from the debate and debaters themselves.

Debate heightens theatricality, which is one of the cores of all political systems. A candidate's charisma; ability to think on his feet; capability to discriminate between which issues are vital and which trivial; willingness to disclose and defend his own values; and candidness in demonstrating his way of thinking about the complex mix of public policy that confronts a modern president - all these are a part of what the American public wants to know about their prospective leaders. Debates will help provide that, as long as they are not pampered up to look like joint news conferences or game shows.


  1. Vig: Great post! Your insights about the presence of moderators, and how their goals distract the viewer from making his/her own (unassisted) assessment of each candidate (which is, after all, the purpose of having debates) is enormously valuable.

    I like the suggested format for the debates that you describe. I heard an idea today on Air America that I'd like to share. I regret I cannot give credit where credit is due, but at least I can pass along what I thought was a brilliant suggestion.

    The suggested format was much as you have laid out, but included a built-in crap/lie detector: Before the debate(s), using the net, statements made by each of the two candidates would have been gathered, compiled, and annotated so that if/when one or the other candidate mis-represented the other's position, the candidate whose position was inaccurately stated would raise his hand, the moderator would silence both, and the truthful statement would be immediately played, thus, hopefully, making clear the candidate's true position, and might even discourage such spinning, dissembling, and downright lying which, sadly, is so prevalent in today's poisoned political atmosphere.

    This might not be as easy to accomplish as it sounded, but perhaps your readers can offer ways to implement something similar and better.

  2. A perfectly bipartisan post! Congratulations on coming off your edge!

  3. I do not see this as a bi-partisan post, at all. An open, down-for-the-count slug-fest modeled debate will favor the Democratic side.

    As someone who has followed this election every day and especially Obama, he has plenty of amunition for the debate on foreign policy - he just has to ask the questions:

    "Is the world better off today than before the Iraq war?"
    "Is the world safer today than before Bush was in office?
    "Have we solved any of the conflicts with the Axis of Evil Countries?"
    "Have we gained more enimies/countries since Bush took Office?"
    "And are we liked and trusted more around the world now than before Bush took office?"

    This is a partisan post. And justifiably so.

  4. This is a great post! I say they do it HS style and keep those blubbering moderators out of it!

  5. What an excellent proposal. I'd love to see it implemented.

    Though I would not restrict broadcast to C-Span. Almost no one would actually see the debate. This needs to be on the over-the-air broadcast networks in order to assure a wide audience, especially including lower income and transient Americans who might not have ready access to cable.

  6. Who will be favored by tonight's format?

    McCain: master of the one-line, bumper-sticker zinger?

    Obama: master of the paragragh-by paragraph logical exposition of policies?

  7. It is true that in such a debate Obama would most certainly hold the upper hand. Senator McCain would be unable to follow the program. Cross examination is not his forte and neither is direct examination, for that matter. His age shows more and more each day with his poor decision making and faulty judgments.

    I agree (gasp) with Wizard that C-Span would be a loser if it, and it alone, carried the program. I do think it should be opened afterward to insightful, if not always impartial (hah) analysis. The fact is more than half of your viewers would need to have the answers explained as in many cases they wouldn't even understand the questions.

  8. I agree. Obama opened his mouth and let McCain spit down his throat.

  9. Ilan Goldenberg in the
    The American Prospect gives us rubric of four criterion by which we, as citizen-pundits, can score the debate. Here's the way I do them:

    Watch the Gaffes: There were no gaffes.

    McSame: Obama, by insisting on running on the future and the present, has excused McCain from explaining his past. That is a huge concession and it showed in this debate.

    It's the Economy Stupid: There are too many unknowns about the economic catastrophe facing us, so the discussion was vaporous. However, Barack could have done more than slip in the word "Irag" in the discussion about the economy.

    Temper, Temper: No one lost his temper, though McCain showed disdain for Obama, rarely looking at him and repeatedly saying 'Obama just doesn't get it'.

    I score the debate for McCain, too.

  10. Wizard, you raise a valid point, I guess. Cable has penetrated into only 58% of TV households in the United States. It's scandalous that CSpan is not available to so many Americans, when it is widely viewed ther the rest of the world.

  11. It's scandalous that CSpan is not available to so many Americans, when it is widely viewed ther the rest of the world. Then, Vig, I count myself among the lucky people and couldn't agree with you more. I also wish I could get Democracy Now.

    I never watch debates on network news: I was glued to CSPAN, then switched over to my favorite talking heads, Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow. Nice comment, oh mike of the mad.

    Well, db, I far preferred Obama's logic and intelligence over McCon's bullying. He clearly used the turdblossom tactics of debate. I bet he learned from the same bastard as Bushit.

    Getalife, nice post. Of course, you know WSW is owned by Murdoch, another old bastard. McShame was hostile, rude, and condescending to Obama. He also got rattled when Obama said, "That's not true," and tore down every argument McExxon made.

    I sure enjoyed watching that thug get rattled.

  12. I experience a degree of hesitancy in endorsing Vigil's NO HOLDS BARRED debate format. That's really what it should be called, because there's no referee in the ring, just a time keeper and maybe he has a button with which he turns off one mic when it turns on the other. I guess there's some attraction to relying on the contestants to policing their own conduct, what with every nuance down to facial expressions being recorded for the benefit of posterity's sound bites. I don't know. I try to envision specific candidates, past and present, left to their own devices... Who is it? The Killa from Wasilla? Well, now that I think of it, she could surely embarrass the GOP ticket immeasurably, just with her questions of Biden. But it could be ugly. It could be ugly with all the blood in the water.

  13. Ugliness, embarrassment, and blood always improve ratings. What's the downside?

  14. I saw a clear winner in this debate and it was Barack Obama. He was truly "Kennedyesque" whereas McCain was just McCain, a cranky, out of sorts old man whose patience has long since run out.

  15. P.S. That being said I will admit that Obama could stop being the King of Dignity and start showing some balls:-)

  16. I want to thank Soros for the name of this debate format: the No Holds Barred Framework (NHBF)!

    Reading accounts of the debate, I found mention of the fact that McCain never looked at Obama, never even addressed him by name. I have to point out that under NHBF, candidates would have to address each other whenever they asked a question: there would be no one on stage for them to speak to. There would have been no middleman like Jim Lehrer.

    I think the NHBF has merit.

  17. The current debate mold is broken and dysfunctional.

    Eighty percent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track, but they're also unsure of why, exactly, the ship is so endangered, and how to right it. It's these candidates' job to suggest at least the beginnings of an answer. But last night, they barely uttered their campaigns' basic mantras, "straight talk" and "change." Restricted by their need to appeal to a narrow slice of independents, they battled like two people trapped and constricted in a tight cell.

    The debate failed in producing or illuminating any Leaderhip.

  18. I'm feeling there are two schools of thought among political professionals with respect to debates.

    One side says debates are not as important as massive crowds at campaign stops and intense media advertising; that most of the people who watch them are committed supporters on either side; for the others, debates just put them to sleep.

    The other side - my side - wants see candidates reach out and grab each other by the throat and squeeze to see which one calls 'uncle' first. I think that's the way you win crossover votes. Listen to Maureen Dowd yesterday in the NYT:

    "... the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines."

    My NHBF allows a visceral debate.

    But I'm not sure who's right. Maybe the pros are, because it's their day job and they're paid according to their results, not according to my satisfaction.

  19. Terrific thinking, Vig! Also, Emily's addition is a
    great idea. Haven't had time to read all the comments, but they are a great improvement over debates as we presnetly know them.