A presidential print debate could cut through the noise

It will not be long before the 2016 presidential campaign process is at the top of the national agenda.  We have all witnessed the cacophony of information, misinformation and noise that comes at us during these chaotic electoral seasons.

A case in point is the second presidential debate.  Mitt Romney’s ideological reversal on several positions threw Obama off and led to Romney “winning” that exchange despite significant inconsistencies. 

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Since distorting history and policies in a live debate worked well as a basic tactic, we will undoubtedly see more of it.  This problem comes amidst an ongoing blizzard of communications surrounding presidential campaigns that produces far more heat than light.  Given what we generally expect is coming in 2016, consider a political idea that would change the nation’s approach to presidential campaigns. 

Before the televised presidential debates, hold a national print debate. 

A print debate is a deliberative political dialogue that would be defined by rules and terms. This form of communications, featuring adversaries on a level playing field, would appear on a formal Internet platform.  This process could yield a series of easily printed magazine-size documents of, say, 12 pages each

A presidential print debate could unfold in a step-by-step manner over perhaps four to six weeks. Once one side starts, the clock is triggered, allowing for a response time of a few days for that opponent.  Everyone would know that each side had time to put forth their views carefully. Clarity of message should be a cornerstone of the effort to develop the rules and terms.

Sections of a print debate could vary depending on what round was taking place.  One part of a document could describe issues with visual documentation. Another section might contain a list of questions preceded by the context in which that question was being asked. An additional section could summarize positions that might acknowledge some movement towards the other side after seeing their presentation in the previous round.

Candidates could launch inquiries and rebuttals with the purpose of clarifying their own arguments or critiquing the views of their opponents. Claims on either side could be more easily verified or disproven by means of the written word, resulting in greater focus being directed towards the specific arguments. The rules that shape the nature of this very public process would evolve over time.

While existing platforms featuring opposing sides abound, this back and forth process will encourage drilling down on the specific statements and assumptions of a contrasting view. On one level, this will be an opportunity to explore areas of common ground and ultimately compromise.

On another level, because it is deliberative and sustained, this process may lead to a clear public understanding that only one of these political views holds up to scrutiny.  Weak arguments or flawed positions will become more apparent in a print debate, which could often yield a specific winner and loser.

Envision a 2016 televised presidential debate in which the public has access to this step-by-step clash of opinions beforehand. 

For many citizens, this will be a no-brainer.  To the campaign establishment, including the Presidential Debates Commission, changing the status-quo will be a terrible idea.  They guard their prerogatives ferociously, but their objectives don’t necessarily line up with the national interest.

Nevertheless, what happens if this alternative gains some national traction and public opinion polls come into play?  An authentic sea change may turn on the growing realization that a print debate could lead to a greater public recognition of historical truth and a dismissal of falsehoods.  And this will lead many to have a more complete understanding of the issues facing the country.

Should we be content with what the electoral industry has been providing or should we have a presidential print debate in 2016?

Connolly is executive director for the Institute for Public Dialogue, jconnolly@ifpdialogue.org.

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