How to Bring Dignity Back to the Debates

As I sat to begin this article, subject in hand, I was distracted by a recurring thought from the morning’s news: Nancy Reagan is gone. Though I mourned President Reagan as so many others did when he passed, it always seemed as though his era was still ongoing, his presence still felt so long as she was there to sit and be recognized in the front row of Republican debates at the Reagan library, so long as she was out there—as the anchors have said repeatedly—carrying his flame. Reagan was a great leader, but in a time when presidential candidates stand on the stage insulting one another’s anatomy or appearance and making thinly veiled derogatory comments about the other’s ethnicity, perhaps what we can miss most about Reagan and his era was the class, the dignity that it held both objectively and, particularly, in comparison to these last few months. With some exceptions on both sides, the same could be said of candidates of either party in days gone by. If you and I disagree in our estimation of Reagan’s politics, fill in the blank with Kennedy and the argument remains the same.

As easy as it is to blame cultural decline (I do) and the candidates themselves (again, I do), the truth is that the networks that host the debates are at least as responsible for allowing presidential debates to run off the rails for the sake of replay value and sensationalism. That boost to their ratings, however, comes at the expense of the American people’s understanding of the options they face on Election Day. Thus, in hopes of bringing a bit of Reagan’s dignity back to the field, I propose a few of the sorts of modifications to the debates that could improve their substance and reward a candidate’s knowledge of the issues rather than his propensity for flare and vitriol. Whether these rules would be implemented in all of the debates, the early ones, or at least—for the love of Reagan—just one, I believe that they would make them a bit more suited to statesmen than reality TV stars.


  1. Every Question, Every Candidate

How many times in a primary—particularly early in the primary, when the field is still crowded—do candidates complain that they have not been asked as many questions? For candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson, asking to be asked a question became so commonplace that even they could not help but laugh when they had to do so again. Even more often, candidates complain that they were not asked a particular question that other candidates were given, depriving them of the ability to present their policy alternatives. Asking Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz about their tax plans without asking anyone else makes it look as if they are the only candidates with tax plans worth discussing, and it takes up valuable time when other candidates refuse to answer the next question because—understandably—they want to go back to present their own tax plans as viable alternatives. This means that the next question on an equally important subject—say, defeating ISIS—goes unanswered.

Messy problem, simple solution: every question that is asked should go all the way down the line, with every candidate given ample time to differentiate his solution from those of his opponents. I can already hear the objections: “But viewers will get bored listening to five minutes on the details of tax plans!” Perhaps. Perhaps they are being underestimated. Perhaps people who watch debates are already more inclined to be interested in political issues, would appreciate learning what the candidates have beyond a few choice sound bites, and could benefit themselves from a few minutes of careful listening. If the candidates themselves are to appeal—as they so often have—to the worst in the American people, it should be the role of the networks to balance that with an appeal to the best in them: their conscientious understanding. Who knows? It might even turn a few low-information voters away from the whole process, discouraging people from going to the polls if they don’t bother to know the meaning of their vote. That should be something that we can all get behind.


  1. Yes-No-Maybe

In presidential debates today, it seems as though evasion is the order of the day. Whether that evasion comes from governors with little foreign policy experience navigating a question on ISIS, Marco Rubio explaining his long-fluctuating positions toward Cuba, Ted Cruz talking about gay marriage to young Republicans who don’t share his views, or Donald Trump talking about literally anything, candidates use evasion at the podium to avoid topics on which their opinions are unpopular with some part of the electorate or on which they have little knowledge. In many cases, they reference the interrelated nature of political issues to segue to safer ground, e.g. answering a question on how to improve the economy with a reference to creating jobs, mentioning the importance of stricter immigration enforcement to protecting American jobs, and following that with ninety seconds on immigration policy at the end of which most viewers have forgotten the original question and fail to realize the diversionary tactic at play.

Enter another simple solution: yes-no-maybe questions. Each question would be asked in a yes or no fashion. From there, candidates must begin their answers with a strict declaration of “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe.” This declaration could be given verbally or—my personal preference, despite the game show air of it—buzz in with a button on their podium. Each candidate would then be given equal time to defend his or her position.

Purists may object that this should be a strict Yes-or-No, but I believe that some room must be given for complex issues such as “Would you use troops on the ground to battle ISIS in Iraq?” A well-reasoned answer to such a question may be conditional upon certain events that have not yet come to pass. I would also contend that there is a significant disincentive for candidates to use too many “Maybe’s.” One can already hear the campaign ads citing how many times an opponent gave “Maybe” answers and refused to commit on an issue. Others will object that this kind of stricture forbids the broader back-and-forth offered by the current format. I contend that whatever nugget of value remains there amidst the shouting and insults can be retained later in the primary in town-hall-style forums like those recently hosted by Fox and CNN. The benefits of clarity in a candidate’s positions, however, would far outweigh whatever costs may be associated with such a change.


  1. Turn off the mic’s!

This one is fairly straightforward. Do you remember the last time you heard something truly substantive come out of one of the boisterous exchanges between candidates onstage, interrupting each other and showing ‘leadership’ through sheer volume? Nor do I. Somewhere along the line, debate moderators seem to have given up on that time-honored tradition of turning off a candidate’s microphone when it is not his turn to speak. It is long overdue for a comeback. If a candidate is given ninety seconds to present his view or a thirty-second right of response, at ninety-one or thirty-one seconds, his microphone should be off. Whereas heated exchanges may be great for endless playbacks on the next morning’s talk shows, they degrade the quality of the debate and provide considerable incentive to interrupt what could be meaningful assertions of policy positions. And with strictly delimited time, no candidate can go quoting Reagan’s “I paid for this microphone” moment. They pay for the time that the format promises them and nothing more. For the gasp of clarity and civility that it would offer, this particular rule can’t be stressed enough.


  1. Limit Attacks

There is a place for attacking other candidates in a debate, and these days many of those that fly about can be readily agreed with, but they should not be used as a shield for candidates to hide behind or a cloak to disguise their own refusal to take a stand on an issue. This rule is not to say that attacks or criticisms of other candidates should be entirely banned from debates; merely that there should be some percentage of the questions—say half, to start—in which candidates are forbidden from mentioning or alluding to their opponents. They would be required to speak only of their own views, and if they began an attack their microphones would be turned off. This, again, would heighten the substance of the debates and give voters a clearer picture of their options when they go to the polls.


  1. Moderators with Source Media

This one was introduced by Fox News in one debate during this primary season but seems to have been discarded after one appearance. Fox moderators introduced video evidence of candidates stating their positions in other venues (the Senate, the campaign trail, etc.) so that if candidates tried to backtrack their opinions or misrepresent them on the night of the debate, they would be contradicted by video evidence presented just seconds earlier to every viewer in the country. This should be a stable of the debate process, preventing candidates from relying on viewer/voter ignorance and attempting to look strong by debating moderators along the way. For the moderators’ sakes, for the voters’ sakes, this needs to be a fixture of presidential debates going forward.


Bonus: How do we enforce this?

Throughout all of these rules, a common and unfortunate themes emerges: all of the ways in which debates have lost the sense of being ordered affairs have been to the benefit of the networks. This is unsurprising. People follow incentives, and the incentives for networks are not in all cases aligned with those of voters who want a respectable political culture. Sensationalism sells, and networks are the suppliers. Thus, rather than appealing to the benevolence of the networks to supply us with better debates, the more likely source of improvement would be non-network sponsors like Facebook, Google, and political publications like National Review. Unlike Fox, CNN, CNBC, or MSNBC, the participation of these companies is based in their crafting an image for themselves of being interested in the well-being of the country and the ability of concerned voters to challenge their potential leaders. How better to do so than to insist on better rules and build a brand on improving the conversation? Facebook could allow viewers to answer Yes-No-Maybe in real time along with the candidates. Google could provide the source media used in questions on YouTube for viewers to replay to their hearts’ content. Ideally, this pressure would raise the bar for networks to compete among themselves for which hosted the most well-run debate in an objectively measurable sense.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive nor to guarantee that candidates and the journalists who cover them could not, pursuing their own ambitions, find ways around the rules or some means of slackening them over time. These suggestions would, nonetheless, improve the debate to the extent that they are implemented and perhaps raise the caliber of the candidates in the process. One must ask: could a candidate with no substantive political knowledge long endure under such a set of rules? It is doubtful. Institutions and the rules that govern them often give rise to the kinds of individuals who prosper within them. If the NBA stopped enforcing fouling rules, it may well behoove a team to hire NFL linebackers rather than skilled shooters, but it would make for a bloody and unwatchable game in which savagery trumped skill. If your debate-viewing experiences have been anything like mine in the last few months, that description may sound all too familiar, and it may be time to get behind a new set of rules in hopes of crafting a better game.

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