Lessons Learned from Debate #3: The Need for Reform

Lessons Learned from Debate #3: The Need for Reform

The third Republican presidential debate provided a few opportunities to take the measure of the skills, quickness, preparation and resilience of the candidates on the stage.

It also reminded all of us, once again, of how tremendously flawed our current system of presidential primary debates has become.

Public debates between candidates for public office have been an important part of our democratic tradition nearly from the beginning of our republic. Some (Lincoln/Douglas, Kennedy/Nixon) have been understood as defining moments, not only in our history, but in our political culture. Many, especially in more recent years, have delivered memorable moments to which we have continued to refer decades later.

“There you go again . . .”

“Where’s the beef?”

“I will not use my opponent’s youth against him.”

“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

(And one for future generations, from four years ago: “Oops.”)

These last snippets remind us of another truth. Political debates are, and have been, an important form of popular entertainment for as long as they have been an important part of our political process. Why do you think the Lincoln/Douglas debates were able to attract crowds?

To ignore this second truth is to fail to appreciate what is the only means by which some citizens are drawn to engage the political process.

Some meaningful percentage of people pay attention to debates to be able to talk about them later (what is called “conversational currency”). There need to be memorable moments in order for the investment of their effort to produce a return.

Another group attends to the debates in the same way they might watch the World Series (or, as Governor John Kasich noted with considerable hostility, a cage match). They, too, need moments of brilliant play, dramatic verbal takedowns, candidates losing their cool, others fumbling their lines badly, to justify the time they will spend watching and listening.

Then there are the networks.

They do it for the money.

Oh sure, they frame their provision of time in terms of performing a public service, and they probably mean it. But they also have an eye to the ratings, a point made (whether fully accurately or with considerable exaggeration) by Donald Trump.

What has gone deeply, seriously wrong, as was evident again with this last debate, is that the media moderators cannot satisfy the various standards of “fairness” candidates and their proponents assert. Nor can they hold these high-powered personalities to the rules they themselves agreed to.

Most importantly, these media moderators seem incapable of giving priority to the questions that the candidates and, I believe, the public want the candidates to address. And the candidates hit back, hard, often with considerable success.

When the media becomes the issue, rather than the candidates and the issues, we have a serious problem.

I believe there is an entirely viable alternative to what we are doing today. It brings us more of what is relevant: It makes the candidates responsible for what happens in the debate; it reduces the role of moderator to that of timekeeper; and it requires the candidates to square off, one-on-one, rather than struggling to get a word in or going after the moderator.

This approach meets the needs of citizens seeking to learn about the candidates. It will provide candidate-specific fuel for conversations, as each candidate will get a meaningful opportunity to make his or her mark on the American mind. And it will invite candidates to craft their “event” in a manner that is likely to attract an audience for its entertainment value . . . because, if they don’t, they’re unlikely to get the “votes” to proceed to the next round.

I’ve called it the bracket system, because it is inspired by the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament’s organization. That alone might commend it to our collective consideration; think of the millions upon millions of viewers who follow their returning champion, insurgent powerhouse or Cinderella team, throughout the tournament.

So, yes, it even could satisfy the needs of the media . . . except for their apparent need to make themselves the issue.

Interested? Read the details here.