The debates have begun for yet another presidential primary cycle.
This past Wednesday, eight Republican hopefuls gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to battle for their party’s nomination for president. 12.8 million Americans watched on Fox News, Fox Business and Fox streaming channels. CNN has some decent takeaways if you missed it.
The man leading bigly in the polls, the one and the only Donald Trump, skipped the debate and instead got arrested in Atlanta.
Today, I won’t talk about the first former president to have a mugshot.
Rather, I want to analyze political debates in the USA. Theoretically, they should allow for the public and politicians to become acquainted. Whether in a primary or general election, the idea is that candidates present their policy positions and vision while answering questions from moderators, reporters and the public.
From their inception in the 1960 presidential election, televised debates have been flawed. Candidates have a limited amount of time to explain complicated issues and positions. As reporter Walter Shapiro observes, “A major result of the fixation on time limits is that the speed of one’s answer becomes more of a virtue than its content.” He lists multiple examples when a candidate went, to use modern slang, viral for a comment, action or behavior while their overall presentation and political philosophy went ignored. My personal favorite is President George W. Bush looking at his watch during the ’92 debates. We’ve all been there, George.
Shapiro provides several ways to improve political debates. Before breaking them down, I note that his article is written about general election presidential debates. In other words, once the two nominees have been chosen. The primary process is crucial in the United States since we have two viable options, shoving diverse candidates like Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin or Donald Trump and Susan Collins into the same party. Therefore, I will apply his principles to primary and general elections in order for the debates to have the most impact throughout the entire election cycle. I contend these rules should be applied to state and local races, too.
- “The more, the merrier.” With more opportunities in a variety of formats (traditional, town hall, etc.) to present themselves before the American people, there’s less incentive to either create a viral moment or fixate on trivial matters by the debaters, other politicians, the moderators, and the media. I agree. While brevity and conciseness are desirable, sometimes issues, policies or actions require in-depth answers, such as how to achieve peace in the Middle East. With more debates, more depth. Hopefully.
- “One topic per debate.” Most debates try to admirably cram diverse topics like the economy or foreign policy in a couple of hours. In the primary season, you have many answering the same question. Naturally, depth and clarity are hard to obtain when eight to ten people all have to give answers ranging on diverse topics. By limiting the focus, there’s less incentive for cookie cutter, generic responses. If we implement more debates, we cover more topics. Gallup routinely asks voters what they believe is the most important problem facing the nation. By using that data and other sources, candidates will focus on what matters most to folks. Still, I’d allow for one or two debates to feature issues not in the top five or ten to expose voters to additional perspectives and ideas.
- “Try outside experts instead of TV anchors.” I contend we should use both. Anchors, having more broadcast experience, will keep a schedule and preside while the experts deepen the discussion. In 2020, I proposed a three moderator system of a registered Democrat, Republican and Independent.
- “Incorporate fact-checks into the debate itself.” Although I really like this idea, it will be hard to implement. The candidates would have to agree on what rating system to use, if fact-checkers can interrupt a candidate when they utter a falsehood or something misleading. Shapiro suggests setting aside the last section of a debate for candidates to respond to “major, not nitpicky” corrections from the experts. That seems to be a nice compromise.
Here are some additional ideas from me.
- Candidates will be fined when they interrupt another candidate. Fines will increase each time and the proceeds will go to the interrupted’s campaign. I don’t know about you, but if I witness interruptions every other sentence, I’m turning off the debate.
- Improved accessibility and scheduling. Wednesday’s debate was hosted by Fox News. It was a bit difficult to access live if you didn’t have cable. I don’t know why any debates at any level of public office should be exclusive to cable or behind a paywall. Since many Americans are exhausted with their day to day toil, debates should be on an evening when they don’t have to work and can devote their full attention to it. Most likely not Sunday during football season.
Political debates are a vital part of democracy at multiple levels of public office during primary and general elections. But they need an overhaul in order to be more impactful.
If I wanted to have people screaming and interrupting each other in an incoherent fashion, I’d go to a bar.
If the debates don’t improve, I’ll only be able to handle them when drunk.