October 10, 2016.
While I appreciate to some extent the benefits of having a famous name and face or two sitting at the moderator's desk for the Presidential debates, and the potential positive impact on interest and ratings, we have seen this year a continuation of the moderators getting in the way, interjecting themselves and their interest in 'getting a story' into the debates, rather than facilitating the conversation in an objective manner.
Note that I say this as a #NeverTrump person; I don't support him or his positions, but like many of his supporters, all of his campaign team, his family, his closest advisers, and many of my own friends, I believe he has undeniably been treated differently by the moderators in the first two debates.
When that happens, soundbite collection goes up, but real discussion on the issues decreases correspondingly.
It's clear that we have no opportunity to fix the candidates our political parties bestowed upon us this year, but we do have an opportunity to fix the debates so that they are more effective in educating the voting public on where the candidates stand on important issues, and significantly less focused, as a friend of mine put it, on sharing the candidates' respective baggage.
So how do we fix it? Here are a few ideas.
First: officially define, or re-define, the role of the moderator to include the following activities:
- Introducing the candidates.
- Explaining the rules, such as how much time is allowed to respond, who goes first, opportunities for rebuttals, and so on.
- Reading the questions, or introducing the people who are to read the questions.
Second: the moderators should be prohibited from the following activities:
- Fact-checking the responses from the candidates.
- Arguing with the candidates.
- Controlling the time allocated to the questions and rebuttals.
Third: moderators should be pulled from the ranks of judges who have been deemed qualified and have actually participated in events held under the auspices of the National Debate Tournament, and not from the media.
Regarding how the debates are structured, here are some suggestions for the 'town hall' debate format:
- Only audience members who were invited to participate in the town hall are allowed to pose questions to the candidates.
- The moderator role in the town hall format is limited to (a) introducing the questioner; (b) ensuring the question (and any rebuttal) goes to the right candidate based on established rules; and (c) at the end of the responses, asking the questioner whether or not, in their opinion, the question was answered.
- A designated timekeeper, who is qualified and certified as a judge in the National Debate Tournament, will maintain the visible clock for response and rebuttals times; the clock will include an indicator at 20 seconds, 15 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, and when time has expired. All candidate microphones will be disabled at five seconds after time expires.
- Candidates are required to defend their own policies in response to questions falling within larger topic 'blocks' such as national security (immigration, crime, terrorism); foreign policy (military deployments, treaty support, the Middle East); economics (budget, debt, taxes); public policy (education, the environment, energy, and climate change, jobs and trade, health care, safety net programs, the Supreme Court, speech and religion, gun control/gun rights) and so on.
- Because the candidates are discussing their own policies, there will be no rebuttals in this format.
- These debates will be held without an audience present. Pooled media video/audio will be employed, as they are at many other aspects of the campaign. Viewing areas will be provided for those wishing to attend and watch the debate from outside the hall.
- Time will be kept in the manner described above, with the countdown indicators and automatic microphone shut off at five seconds past the expiration of time.
Finally, to expand the discussion of ideas in the country, I believe we need to expand the presidential debate stage to include participation from minor parties, with some restrictions.
- Minor party candidates who are on the ballot in at least 26 states by July 1st of the election year are allowed to participate fully in the town hall debates.
- In order to participate in the 'traditional' presidential debate format, the minor party candidates must meet the ballot line requirements and also must have published policies in each of the topic blocks.
- Moderators and the timekeeper will review websites for all of the candidates meeting the ballot requirements to determine whether the candidates have defined sufficient policy positions to allow participation in the topic block discussions.
- The review is not intended to assess the validity or viability of the policies, but rather to ascertain whether the candidate has defined enough of a platform to be included, and to determine whether there are any topic blocks where a candidate cannot compete based on the lack of policies.
Is this perfect? Nope.
Is it boring? Perhaps, if you're more interested in a mixed martial arts event or some politicians-vs.-lion kind of thing.
But for all of the people who actually want to understand what the candidates stand for, as opposed to hearing what they say at rallies without having to really say anything other much at all about what they stand for, or hearing talking heads make their opinions known, these might be acceptable options.
There's one more debate. It might not be too late.