A Better Debate Format

I have long hated the current presidential debate format. It is either fawning adulation or gotcha shenanigans, depending. I get nothing in the way of actual knowledge from them, other than to see how the candidates perform under stress, which is useful, I admit. I was glad to see it all come to a head over the CNBC debate. I was very happy to see the candidates speaking out at the absurdity of it all. I was even happier when the candidates got together to plan a debate format among themselves. Unfortunately, The Donald decided he benefitted from the current format, so that idea is a no-go. At least for now.

I still believe both the candidates and the country would benefit from a wholly different format. My criteria are as follows:
– Allows them speak in paragraphs. Or not, depending on what’s called for.
– Allows them to debate a few topics, known to them ahead of time and mutually agreed on.
– Allows them to question each other’s solutions and approaches. Some actual reasoned debate.
– Employs a neutral moderator whose job is to monitor the format and keep things on track. Think C-SPAN-ish.

In fact, I think C-SPAN would make an ideal venue. And the neutral hosting approach left as a legacy by Brian Lamb would serve us well.

9 thoughts on “A Better Debate Format”

  1. There are too many candidates for the long format. I agree with C SPAN. A moderator could ask questions and give each 5 minutes or so to respond. Others could respond s a question might lead to 15 minutes total.

    The trouble is that too many politicians have tapes running in their heads. One refreshing aspect of this year is the unprogrammed nature of several candidates.

  2. With all those candidates, there is no alternative to 5 minutes unless anyone is willing to sit there and watch four hours of this. I’m not.

  3. I don’t think format is the main issue. They should try different formats. The problem is that the Republican Party relinquished control over its debates to the Democrats. By now enough Republican candidates and voters have noticed the problem that the Republicans may change their debate procedures. Whether they will do something about their institutional corruption and ineptitude is another question.

  4. I agree the format I have in mind would work best with 4-5 people. So maybe have debates in pairs, as Fox did, with the 4-5 top polling candidates in one debate and the 4-5 lesser polling candidates in another.

    I still like the idea of having the questions known and agreed ahead of time. That will give the candidates time to think through and hone their positions. I’d like to hear ideas that have been thought through and presented in a coherent way.

  5. Four would be best and they should be determined by random selection from those above 1% in national polls. They could be held weekly and streamed instead of broadcast. In a year like this that would really get the debate to focus on the issues.

  6. I’ll repeat the advice I have been giving for years: If you want to know something about the candidates, don’t watch these “debates”. (If you like to watch them for much the same reason some people like to watch mud wrestling, then go ahead.)

    Instead, take the same amount of time to read something about the candidates. For instance, the Almanac of American Politics has good sketches of our current governors, congressmen, and senators. For those who have been out of office for a while, you’d have to look for earlier editions. It’s expensive — about $80 — but should be available in any decent public library.

    (And here’s a challenge for the ingenious: I think that the ability to listen is at least as important in a president, as the ability to talk. But I haven’t been able to think of any public way to judge that.

    Any ideas?)

  7. The format I suggest for candidate debates is adapting a Congressional hearing model, the kind broadcast on CSPAN.

    Each GOP candidate takes a turn in front of a panel made up only of the other GOP candidates who act as interlocutors.

    The GOP candidate ‘on the stand’ can give an opening and closing statement, but otherwise the entire period is spent responding to examination by the other GOP candidates.

    Whether they want to be adversarial, collaborative, wonkish, petty, etc, with each other is up to them, understanding that the interlocutor is being judged by viewers, too, and every interlocutor will take his or her turn ‘on the stand’.

    All the candidates agree beforehand on a neutral non-candidate moderator who doesn’t get involved with substance, but simply manages the format and ground rules like a chair for a hearing.

    If a particular candidate emphasized a particular issue like immigration in his campaign, he would have his turn challenging the record and position of every other candidate on that issue while they’re ‘on the stand’. The other candidates can change or broaden the agenda with their interrogatories in the same way.

    A common website can be set up for the candidates to upload additional material relevant to subject matter raised in the debates, like reports are supplied at Congressional hearings. In fact, the candidate ‘on the stand’ can have his or her staff ready to upload the material in real-time during the debates.

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