Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The No-Holds-Barred Debate Format

This is a new and reader-improved re-posting.

The original column and discussion can be found here. Reader comments have changed my thinking somewhat. I have had to qualify my earlier idealization of the original Lincoln-Douglas Debates. But I'm not the least bit swayed from talking up my No-Holds-Barred Debate Format (NHBDF) as an ideal basis for real debate. My ideas as presented below remain tentative. 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 multiple networks, including C-Span, In tuning in to their preferred channels, viewing audience would most probably be selecting their favorite post-debate 'shows' (for lack of a better word).
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 exactly 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.

In the NHBDF, 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. In my view 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. Under NHBF, candidates would have to address each other whenever they asked a question: there would be no one else on stage for them to speak to. There would have been no middleman like Jim Lehrer or Gwen Ifill. There would be no controversy about 'softball' and 'hardball' questions. Candidates would be held directly responsible for the quality of questions directed at their opponents. Questions as well as answers would be graded by the public.

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.

Originally, I wanted to restrict the debate broadcasts to C-SPAN facilities, assuring a 'default' neutral post-debate programming. At the very least, TV viewers would have to take their own initiative, and make their own choices as to tuning in to post-debate coverage on other network channels. But a reader pointer out that C-SPAN requires cable, which would exclude more than 40% of American households.
Network pundits will inevitably score the debate, and designate 'winners' and 'losers'. And viewers will have inevitably selected their favorite scorekeepers by switching to their own preferred channel. Most viewers will sit passively in front of their teevee after the debate 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. I would have preferred requiring audiences to choose their own post-debate pundits by switching channels after the debate to help communicate the idea that commentary is different and separate from the debate and debaters themselves. But it's clear that my C-SPAN only idea is a non-starter as it would exclude many interested viewers.

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.

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 and undecided votes. Maureen Dowd advised us few days ago in the NYT, 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.
The NHBDF allows for a visceral debate.


  1. I am in debt to reader comments, especially from Wizard and Soros' Proxy, for improving my thinking on this subject. But not one of them is responsible for faulty ideas which remain.

  2. Very neat way to organize a debate. I think everyone should just watch the animated version of the candidates instead. Check it out at www.animaticmedia.com

  3. Is the joint press conference over yet?