America's presidential debates are broken. Here's how to fix them.
The general election debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump begin this month, and, if recent history serves as any guide, they will be worse than useless.
Instead of any substantive exploration of the candidates' proposals, we will be treated to a mélange of showmanship and complaining, obstinacy and irrelevance, petty quibbles, grandstanding, pandering, half-truths, and punchlines. The candidates will be rehearsed, the moderators timid, the questions calculated, and the answers at once too short and too long. We will learn little to nothing that could not be discovered at this very moment by any Google user of modest skill. And inevitably, we will drink — a shot for every boast, a chug for every lie — because drinking games have become as guaranteed a fixture of our presidential debates as the candidates themselves. Is it any wonder debate viewership has been on a steady decline for decades?
It doesn't have to be this way.
I'm not suggesting, of course, a return to the fabled Lincoln-Douglas debates. Frankly, neither major party contender this cycle could achieve that level of oratory, and I doubt most Americans would be interested in watching it even if they could. Still, there are acres of middle ground between eloquent 90-minute monologues and snarky 10-second soundbites. To that end, here are five ways to improve our presidential debates.
1. Nix the in-house audience. Having a peanut gallery to laugh, boo, and applaud the candidates adds nothing to the event and encourages debaters to recite shallow catchphrases for easy approval. A positive reaction in the room in turn promotes a positive reaction in viewers at home, enabling lightweights to win more support than they deserve. If you doubt the potential impact of this change, imagine Donald Trump with no crowd to feed his mania or Hillary Clinton without an audience to polish her offended dignity. The difference would be night and day.
Instead of a theater or stadium, the debates should occur in a quiet room with fewer than 10 people present: the candidates, a moderator, and a few camera operators and crew. If the candidates' egos insist upon immediate feedback, give them a canned laugh track in an earpiece.
2. Cut the mic of whoever isn't talking. In one 2012 debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the candidates and moderator interrupted each other 122 times in just 90 minutes. That's pretty typical, and it makes substantive discussion — already hampered by the perilously brief time allotted to each reply — nigh impossible. If a speaker has been given the floor for a set period of time, the other speakers should not be mic'd until that time has been ceded.
3. Replace gotcha questions with a formal format. Speaking of time allotments, the structure of the debates should follow a predictable pattern with a reasonable pace. As it is, questions are asked at random and candidates are given anywhere from 15 seconds to three minutes to respond. This haphazard approach is particularly damaging in the primaries, where candidates get markedly uneven speaking time and question quality.
A better format would be something like the Oxford debate style, which breaks the evening into single-topic modules. The moderator starts a section with a proposition — for example, "We should build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it" — on which each candidate may speak for seven minutes plus a one-minute rebuttal of the other's remarks. No interruptions are permitted, and seven minutes is long enough that a speaker who wishes to persuasively use their whole time will have to offer more depth than a soundbite can include. The finality of the format, which will permanently move on to a new issue once rebuttals are done, pushes candidates to stay on topic.
4. Remove the major parties from the planning process. Until 1988, the modern presidential debates were organized by the League of Women Voters. That year, the civic organization withdrew sponsorship "because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." The campaigns were attempting to "add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity, and answers to tough questions," the League said, for the purpose of "hoodwinking of the American public."
Since then, the events have been managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), run by Democrat and Republican Party leadership. This convenient arrangement allows the campaigns to set mutually agreeable rules behind the scenes, prohibit real-time fact-checking by moderators, and exclude third-party candidates. It is patently corrupt and institutionally incapable of producing an honest, challenging discussion.
5. Lower the bar for third-party participation. The CPD is ostensibly nonpartisan and ostensibly open to third parties. In practice, however, it is nearly impossible for anyone but the Democratic and Republican nominees to make it to the debate stage, no matter how serious their campaign or interesting their positions.
To be included, a third-party candidate must demonstrate 15 percent national support in a selection of polls picked by the CPD. This creates a catch-22: Without the national exposure the debates provide, it is almost impossible to hit 15 percent, even for nominees of recognizable groups like the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party. But without that 15 percent support, the national exposure never comes.
This year, with historically unpopular major party candidates, the unfairness of this rule becomes increasingly obvious, even to observers with no vested interest in third-party inclusion. A more reasonable bar might be something like 2 percent support for the first debate, scaling up to 5 and 10 percent for the second and third. That would get Green candidate Jill Stein on the stage for at least the first event, and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson would likely swing all three.
Maybe third-party participation wouldn't shake things up as much as I hope and expect — but maybe it would. And even if including Stein and Johnson fails to launch a new era of presidential debates, at least it might spark some fresh rules for our drinking games.