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Better Debates

In November of 2007, in the runup to the presidential primaries, Diane Rehm hosted on her show a discussion of presidential debates, of their benefits and shortcomings, and of how they ought to be changed.

This was my suggestion, e-mailed to the show early in the program. I was otherwise engaged and couldn’t listen to much at that point (and calling in rather than sending e-mail is not, at any rate, a fate I would look forward to — I think much more clearly and easily with some time for reflection at the keyboard than on the spot in live conversation). I listened later to the transcript, and nothing of this appeared on the air, nor have I heard anything similar before or since.

21 November 2007

I’m not going to be able to listen to the show this morning, but I have a suggestion for the debates going forward that I’d like to put before your guests.

The problem with the debates is that they are, by design, superficial.

What if the various campaigns — it would work best when there were two left standing (eg. after the primaries) — each put together a list of what they thought the most important issues were and what their positions were on those issues? Then the debate committee would select 6 issues from the lists, careful to ensure that each campaign got 3 of its top priorities, and prepared, based on the stated positions, 6 old-fashioned debate questions: “Resolved, the solution to X is Y” or somesuch. From that they would schedule six one hour single-topic debates, with each candidate taking one side of the question. And then let them debate, with 15 minutes at the end reserved for them actually to addresss each other directly in a question and answer format, with the moderator there primarily to intercede if it devolves into “gotchas”.

To make it more interesting and realistic — to acknowledge the fact that any President cannot be the expert on everything and will therefore rely on advisors to guide him/her — I would further propose that each candidate get to bring with them to the debate a “second”, a trusted advisor on the particular topic who can help them with details and background. How each candidate uses their advisor — to help them make the case or merely to help them answer questions about details — would be up to the candidate.

And finally, to keep it honest, suppose we lay down a ground-rule that any statistical studies or meta-analyses or “facts” or “plans” that they intend to use in supporting their case in the debate be provided to the moderator — with source citations — ahead of time for independent vetting. During the debate, if a claim is made based on one of those items that the moderator feels was not supported by the source material the moderator could challenge it, and if material not provided for vetting is introduced the moderator can note that so everyone knows to take it with a grain of salt.

That debate format would actually tell us what the candidates believe in depth, give us a sense of how they analyze problems and what kinds of advisors they listen to, give us a real knowledge about their plans on a particular topic (and about what topics they think are important), and give us a fighting chance at assessing the source material they rely on in forming their opinions and plans.

(C) Copyright 2007, Augustus P. Lowell

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