10 steps toward better presidential debating
Presidential debates exist as a televised tradition since 1960 in the United States, but the Commission on Presidential debates (CPD) presented this year is horribly flawed and must be re-imagined. Moderators have evolved to be the center of attention rather than the candidates — who seize on the opportunity to deliver propaganda rather than defend the policy. Our drift to “town hall” formats is an unfulfilling and unrevealing substitute for true debate.
The debate scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 22, is likely to be the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season — this despite talk of a possible make-up debate for the missed Oct. 15 debate.
Since the CPD took over the League of Women Voters’ debates in 1987, viewership averages over 60 million. By comparison, the Super Bowl gets 100 million, political conventions get 10-20 million, popular TV shows get 5 million, and even vice-presidential debates like the one between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in 2008 can attract more than 70 million.
The most viewed presidential debate in history is the 2016 first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with more than 80 million viewers. No other persuasive communication impacts these many people in the typical 90-minute format. They represent an important opportunity for the campaigns and the public to understand the positions candidates have on issues. Nonetheless, the CPD has reached an impasse in its capacity to conduct these debates.
Moderator problems are at the forefront of CDC shortcomings. From initial incidents such as Bernard Shaw asking about the possible murder of Michael Dukakis’ wife Kitty in 1988 to Candy Crowley’s intervention in the debate between Obama and Romney in 2012, moderators have skewed the basic expectations of a debate. The debate should ideally provide: 1) a previously known topic, 2) two opposing sides, 3) equal time for each side to present, and 4) a mechanism for decision.
Chris Wallace, who moderated the first 2020 presidential debate, said a key to debate success is moderator “invisibility.” Moderators are not only visible, but they occupy an increasingly disruptive function within the debate process that continues to emphasize that these events are not actually debates but iterative press conferences led by a journalist looking for ratings.
The rules for debates since 1987 consistently suggest limits for the candidates but fewer limits for moderators. This led to a trend of moderators occupying larger and more disruptive roles. In 2016, Chris Wallace occupied 19 percent of the debate content in his final debate moderator role. The first two moderators took less than 10 percent of the debate. In the first debate of 2020, Wallace took 25 percent of the time — equating to about 20 minutes of the 90-minute debate. Apologists maintain the disruptive nature of candidate interruptions — especially by president Trump — justify this larger occupation. Future reforms could reduce this problem and restore the credibility of an important public venue for learning the differences between candidates.
Here I suggest reforms that must be implemented if we are ever to fulfill the purpose of these debates:
1. Require a trifecta of debate professionals and the two major campaigns to negotiate the terms of the debate. Remove the journalists as a monopoly on the forum. Debates could take different formats and cover topics strictly approved by both campaigns.
2. Compel moderators to exert minimal and relatively invisible roles in the debate, such as starting and stopping the clock or announcing the topic area.
3. Provide more generous opening statements by the candidates. Debates typically feature opening speeches known as constructive. These four to eight-minute speeches will allow candidates to build their position in the debate.
4. Allow candidates to cross-examine one another. Candidates want to challenge the opposing candidate directly rather than through an intermediary. Such cross-examination periods could last three minutes apiece.
5. Abolish the “town hall” as an official form of debate. This format is founded upon an illusion that regular citizens — sometimes falsely designated as “undecided” — are allowed to ask questions of their own choosing. On the contrary, the media members are chosen by the media, and the journalist-moderator reviews their questions in advance. In a “town hall” hosted by NBC this past week, the moderator asked more questions in the first 20 minutes than all of the citizens in the next 40 minutes. The president was in fact debating the moderator.
6. Stop choosing moderators with evident partisan affiliations. The incident with Steve Scully and his false suggestion that his twitter account was hacked when he reached out to a strident opponent of President Trump, was an avoidable debacle since Scully was known to have been an intern with Joe Biden.
7. Encourage creative debate formats. In college and high school debate, team debate is popular. It would be possible to create a forum where the vice president works in tandem with the presidential candidate in the debate. Such interactions would be highly informative.
8. Debate “tournament formats” to inform the public about large fields of primary candidates. Democrats and Republicans have recently created fields of more than a dozen nominees. In college debate, such entries are handled with a tournament process guided by preliminary head to head rounds that are scored and then divided into elimination rounds based on those debates. Candidates would debate one on one versus a variety of individuals.
9. Re-center the presidential debate process within the National Archives and Records Administration. The United States under this legislation maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries with elegant facilities. They represent ideal forums for hosting Presidential debate events and connecting history to the future of the Presidency. The Reagan library successfully hosted a 2016 Republican primary debate.
10. Create a truly bipartisan advisory group for presidential debates. Former presidential candidate Bob Dole rightly observed that all of the Republicans currently serving on the CPD oppose President Trump. Republicans have rightly complained for more than a decade that the process disfavors their candidates. The public deserves a credible process.
Ben Voth is an associate professor and director of debate and speech in the Dedman College of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He has three academic books on the power of debate to improve the human condition, and his fourth with Lexington books — “Debate as Global Pedagogy: Rwanda Rising” — comes out soon.
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