Some Thoughts on Presidential Debates
September 5, 2011
Arguably, one of the most famous debates in American history was between two men who were assumed to be future presidential candidates, but were actually running for the U.S. Senate at the time. In 1858, incumbent Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas was being challenged by a relatively unknown member of the Whig Party, Abraham Lincoln. In late summer of that year Douglas and Lincoln agreed to debates to be held in seven different locations around the state of Illinois from mid-August through the end of October. There was one major topic: slavery. The two men crisscrossed Illinois for nearly 10,000 miles and spoke to large crowds at fairgrounds, town squares, and even a college. The format in each encounter was a 60 minute opening by one candidate followed by a 90 minute response by the other. The first candidate then closed with a 30 minute “rejoinder.” By agreement the candidates alternated from debate to debate on who spoke first. The debates were spirited, sometimes even humorous, but always in great depth over the pros and cons of the morality of slavery. It was very clear, when the last debate was concluded, where each man stood on this highly emotional and controversial issue in America at the time.
The press covered the debates, but did not ask the questions. The candidates truly debated each other, not the media. The press came to report news not to make news. Win, lose or draw, the public was better served with this approach. Although Lincoln lost the election, he was catapulted into national prominence and was elected President two years later under the banner of a new political entity, the Republican Party.
Many high school and college debate teams still essentially follow this format even today. The focus is on the interaction between the participants, not the interaction between a questioner and a debater. Under the Lincoln-Douglas “rules” one side must try to prevail by making a superior argument on the context of the issue. There is great emphasis on truth in statements made by both sides and although emotion, style, humor and even appearance may be critical to persuasion, it is always within the realm of fact. Each candidate has the opportunity to go into great depth and can develop his position on the issue as well. Then the adversary can outline his or her position and contrast the differences, so that the audience can determine who best represents their views or makes the most effective argument.
Presidential debates in recent American history have strayed far away from the Lincoln-Douglas format. In the 1960 presidential debates, Richard Nixon is generally perceived as the loser because of an unshaven look and because he was not as handsome as his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy. Anyone remember the issues? In the 1980 Republican primary in New Hampshire, Governor Reagan’s famous debate line had nothing to do with the issues when he said, “I paid for this microphone.” However, in 1984 President Reagan scored huge in his debate with Senator Walter Mondale, when he told Mondale that “he would not hold his youth and inexperience against him” after Mondale had made an issue of Reagan’s age. This exchange is remembered because it was a humorous response. What makes it really exceptional under current debate standards is that it came from an exchange between the two candidates and not between a reporter and a candidate. “One liners” and “sound bites” are interesting, sometimes exciting and even controversial. This is all fair under the debate “rules” as long as the exchange is prompted by the candidates and not some third party news source that has their own agenda.
The critical challenge for any credible debate format is how do you really conduct a true “debate” with as many as 10 people on the dais in a Republican or Democrat primary? Unfortunately, even when it is narrowed down to two candidates for the general election, we still have the media controlling the questions and the issues. The candidates have some say in the format, but really are intimidated into participating, once one or two opponents accept. The number of candidates in a debate should not hinder the ability to project their views on issues, assuming they are given the time and format to do so. To try to put all of this into perspective, let’s look at the recent examples of presidential debates hosted by CNN in New Hampshire and FOX in Iowa.
In both debates the press asked the questions and the candidates barely had time to give a one minute response before a bell rang, or the moderator tried to stop them in mid sentence. It is pretty difficult to explain how you would respond to the fiscal crisis in America in one minute! Bret Baier, who hosted the Iowa debate for FOX, stated at the beginning that he hoped that the participating candidates could rise above the “one liners” and “sound bites” because people were really hurting in America and they wanted and needed to hear real solutions. He and Chris Wallace and the other questioners then proceeded to pepper the candidates with “gotcha” questions throughout the entire two hours. This tactic raised the ire of Newt Gingrich, who went after Wallace, when he brought up inconsistent remarks the former Speaker had made regarding Libya.
The questioning also resulted in a nasty exchange between Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. All of this made for great theater, but unlike between Lincoln and Douglas, the critical issues got tossed overboard in the process of the exchanges between the two Minnesotans. Furthermore, it was an awkward situation for the other candidates, who had to stand idle, while the two combatants monopolized the time. Did the network that promotes itself as being “fair and balanced” have to act like MSNBC to prove it? The answer to that question goes to the heart of the debate controversy in America. The answer is, “Who cares?” The debates should not be about the agenda or the ratings of CNN or FOX or any network or media outlet. They certainly should not be about assuaging the ego of a reporter or commentator from one of the news outlets. They should be about candidates sharing and contrasting their views on a national stage to assist the voters in making their decisions.
Here are some suggestions for improvement that could provide all of the ingredients essential for real debates. It may never reach the level of Lincoln-Douglas, but it could be beneficial to voters, media and the candidates. Not only that, it might be entertaining!
The next and all future presidential debates with multi-candidates in a primary should be two-hours long. They should have a moderator, who could be the chairman of the Republican or Democrat Party of the state where the debate is taking place, or some other person that the candidates agree would be impartial. There would be no media questions. The moderator would announce that the debate would cover four very specific topics such as, “What would you do about Afghanistan or Iraq?” or “Please explain how you would balance the federal budget and get America’s fiscal house in order?” All topics or questions would be previously agreed to by a majority of the candidates. Each candidate would then have several minutes to outline his or her position on the topic. After all candidates have responded, each participant gets a lesser amount of time to respond to anything previously said. They can address any candidate they wish, or speak to all. Then, at the completion of the second-round responses, there would be an allotment of time on the same subject for free and open exchange between the candidates with no restrictions except common courtesy. Now we see how candidates respond under pressure. Can they think on their feet? Do they respect each other? Do they know the issue? Thus, the first topic would consume one quarter of the debate time. All response times can be amended, either up or down, should the number of participants change. The next two topics would be debated in the same manner and would consume another 50 percent of the allocated time. The final segment would be set aside for an open interaction between all candidates on any issue the candidates may wish to introduce. The participants may also opt to use the time to comment on a previous question or perhaps they may wish to give a closing statement.
This format would allow for in-depth discussion on at least three, and probably four, major issues. It would provide the opportunity for candidates to question each other vigorously and would highlight differences in spontaneity, style, appearance, emotion and how one might react under pressure. Whatever unfolds, the press will be on top of the story, but not creating the story. If candidate “X” loses his cool, the media will report it. If candidate “Y” cannot “think on his or her feet,” it will be obvious to all. This debate format will provide for an unrehearsed event and give the voters a real opportunity to make a decision on who may one day be president of the United States.
If more issues need to be aired, the same format could be used in succeeding events with new topics. As the candidate field is narrowed down throughout the presidential primary process, these debates in this format will become even more interesting, as the candidates will have ample time to display their in-depth knowledge, or lack thereof, on a multitude of issues. When it is finally narrowed down to the two candidates for President, I would suggest a total of four debates in different regions of the nation with a variation in venues and issues and the same format as described above.
This process, though far from perfect, I strongly believe would be a credit to the political process and help us achieve the goal of vetting and selecting the next president of the United States. Considering the major flaws in the current debate process, what do we have to lose? If it works, the people, candidates and even the media are all winners. How often does that happen?
Former Senator Bob Smith (R-NH), known as “Senator Bob,” has joined Accuracy in Media as a Special Contributor. His columns and commentaries on media and politics will be available on a regular basis on the AIM website at www.aim.org. He can be contacted at email@example.com.