Thursday, September 25, 2008

Let's Just Cancel All of the Debates ...

If we're not going to hold a real debate.

I confess not to have done any significant research into the original Lincoln-Douglas Debates. But I'm not going to let that stop me from talking about my impression of them as far as providing an ideal format for real debate. My ideas as presented below are tenative. I welcome helpful suggestions and contributions from my readers.

Here's how I think the Lincoln Douglas events would look like if they were to provide a model for debates to serve our contemporary American electorate:
  • Candidate A with microphone

  • Candidate B with microphone

  • Time-Keeper equipped with suitable technologies such as a microphone, stopwatch, calculator or laptop.

  • Audience (impartial, balanced, representative of current registered voters).

  • Program would be broadcast on C-Span, and terminate with the debate's conclusion. No pundits or commentators would be provided by C-Span.
There would be three parts to the debate. It would go something like this:
  1. Opening Statement: Candidates would take turns delivering a short opening statement, say 5-10 minutes.

  2. Cross Examination: Candidates would take turns posing questions to the other. All answers would be subject to follow-up questions. The questions themselves could be questioned or challenged. Notice, I didn't provide for moderator(s), interrogator(s), and questioner. The timekeeper's roll is restricted to only tracking the time each candidate consumes so as to assure equity and to prevent interruptions. Whenever one candidate engages in a filibuster or monologue, his opponent merely raises his hand to the timekeeper who can then direct traffic.

  3. Concluding Statement: Time would be appropriated to allow a five minute concluding statement from each candidate.
It's pretty straight forward and not excatly nuclear science, is it? Let me make a few comments.

The provision of a timekeeper implies only a passive role of a referee. He or she is not a moderator, questioner, nor interlocutor. No question is asked of a candidate, except by the other candidate.

In our modern media world, all potential moderators and questioners have public personas themselves, sometimes approaching or exceeding the weight of the candidates. Any moderator - any moderator - is a self-conscious performer on the debate stage. If his or her role is to pose questions to the candidates, the audience will be judging the moderator by scrutinizing the balance, fairness, and equity of the questions.

Additionally, if one candidate is perceived to significantly outshine or outperform the other, a moderator may feel that he/she should step in, separate the candidates, introduce another soothing question or take some other compensatory measures to re-balance the playing field. This peace-keeping interference would only distract the public from discovering significant differences between the candidates.

All moderators are themselves also running for public approval and amount to distractions from the candidates themselves. In short, proactive moderators inevitably become part of the story. Moderators are arbitrary, third-party intrusions in an otherwise un-buffered process by which the public tries to measure the comparative strengths of each candidate.

My model also does not include the so-called "town meeting" debates, in which candidates are expected to respond to written or verbal questions from members of the live or TV audience. The problem of these types of events is that gotcha' questions come from anonymous sources with little degrees of public responsibility. Programming networks have an affinity for these freak shows because they generate hot-button topics designed to embarrass one candidate or another.

The beauty of restricting the source of questions to the candidates is they have to take responsibility themselves. They will be adversely judged by the audience if they ask unduly personal or insulting questions of their opponents. In the template proposed above, any 'dumb' question will reflect poorly on the candidate asking it. The candidates themselves should frame the debate with their own Q & A.

Finally, by restricting the debate broadcasts to C-SPAN facilities assures a neutral post-debate programming. At the very least, TV viewers will have to take their own initiative, and make their own choices as to tuning in to post-debate coverage on other network channels.
If they want network pundits to score the debate, designate winners and losers, viewers will have to switch to their own preferred channel. They cannot sit passively in front of their teevee and absorb sound-bites the network program has selected for them. Too often, panels of post-debate pundits say the things that TV viewers then take away from the debate. You can't shut up the talking heads, of course. But requiring audiences to choose their own pundits by the process of switching channels might help communicate the idea that commentary is different and separate from the debate and debaters themselves.

Debate heightens theatricality, which is one of the cores of all political systems. A candidate's charisma; ability to think on his feet; capability to discriminate between which issues are vital and which trivial; willingness to disclose and defend his own values; and candidness in demonstrating his way of thinking about the complex mix of public policy that confronts a modern president - all these are a part of what the American public wants to know about their prospective leaders. Debates will help provide that, as long as they are not pampered up to look like joint news conferences or game shows.