How to hold a better debate

I never watch debates any more, and last night’s debate perfectly illustrates why not. In a worthwhile debate, the participants would make comprehensive arguments buttressed by facts. Nothing remotely like that happens in the dreadful political shows that we put on today and call debates.

The very format of political debates prevents any kind of sophisticated argument. The participants are typically given about two minutes to respond to a question, with no chance to prepare in advance, and no time even to consider their answer unless they happen to go second. No notes are permitted, so participants can use only the facts and arguments that they can commit to memory. All this leads to a mere exchange of soundbites, not the clash of reasoned arguments.

Plus, the questions are often stupid. And, worst of all, the moderators — who no one cares about at all — often insist on inserting themselves into the middle of the debate.

And then there’s the whole matter of bias in procedure. Obama and Biden have been given more time in every single debate this year, nine extra minutes in all. The moderators have interrupted Romney/Ryan more times than Obama/Biden in every single debate this year, by a total margin of 74 to 33, when they ought not ever interrupt except to enforce time. Last night Obama got the last word eight times, and Romney only three.

Here’s what they should do instead:

  1. The questions should be determined in advance. Both sides are thereby given the opportunity to prepare an argument.
  2. Notes are permitted. Candidates can bring an entire briefing book if they want, although they may well find that counterproductive. The candidates are thereby empowered to present their best arguments, not just the arguments that they can best commit to memory. The most beneficial ability would be critical thought, rather than memorization, which would align much better with the traits needed to govern effectively.
  3. Each candidate is given the time to make a comprehensive argument. I would suggest that the debate consist of six questions, with 14 minutes per question. (Fewer for longer would be even better, but I suppose the viewing public no longer has the attention span for that.) Each question would be a miniature Lincoln-Douglas debate (by which I refer to the 1858 debates, not the elaborately structured debates that go by that name today). One candidate would make an initial statement for 4 minutes. The second would then get 6 minutes to make his case. Finally the first candidate would get 2 minutes for rebuttal. The remaining two minutes would be spent on 30 seconds of applause after each segment, and 30 minutes for the moderator to read the question.
  4. The candidates would alternate giving the first answer. The first to go first would be determined by a coin flip, which would take place after the order of questions is determined.
  5. Time would be enforced automatically, with each candidate’s microphone active only when it is his turn to speak. A clock showing the time remaining for the current speaker would be visible to each candidate.
  6. The moderator would do nothing other than introduce the candidate, explain the rules, and read the questions. At other times the moderator’s microphone would be inactive.
  7. No applause is permitted other than during the designed times.

The winner in this format would be the candidate who could produce and deliver the best argument, rather than the candidate who can memorize and deliver the best sound bites. I believe it would therefore benefit conservative and libertarian candidates, who have the best arguments. But surely liberals believe otherwise. (It would be interesting to see them develop their class warfare themes into six-minute arguments.)

We would learn a lot about the confidence that politicians have in their ideas by their response to such a proposal. It is telling that Jim Lehrer, who largely let the candidate debate, and only intervened on Obama’s behalf a little bit, has been the target of such vitriol from the left, while the much more interventionist Raddatz and Crowley have been highly praised. Do liberals need a vapid format and interventionist moderator to win debates? We would see.

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