The Ivory Soapbox–Shake up the debates

Two debates have been held in the run-up to the Nov. 6 elections, one between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and one between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. For entertainment purposes, I recommend little better; I admit I had a grand time crowding around the television and trading glances with friends whenever one of the candidates said something of questionable validity. You can even make drinking games around them: a drink for every time Biden laughed at Ryan and a drink for every time the president or Romney steamrollered a sad old man.

Unfortunately, the debates, in their current condition, are not good for very much else, and the fact that they have been elevated to such prominence in presidential elections—multiple pundits proclaimed the first debate a do-or-die moment for Romney—is extremely dangerous. Consider the first debate. Reading commentaries in the hours after its conclusion, I was amazed to discover that the president had been pummeled. The rationale, however, was not that Romney had bested him in any specific argument, but rather that Romney had been alert and aggressive while Obama appeared tired, grimacing and on the defensive. Polls released in the ensuing days showed that voters also subscribed to this view, with Obama’s lead in Virginia and Florida evaporating, his lead in Ohio shrinking to five points and national polling showing him to be losing to Romney by about four.

In the aftermath of the vice presidential debate, the focus was similarly not on the content of the arguments but rather on the candidates’ form, leading Fox News’ Brit Hume to remark, “My sense about [the vice president’s laughter] was that it was so compelling that people probably couldn’t take their eyes off of it. And so [whoever wins] will come down to whether people thought that was attractive or not.” Yes, thousands of votes are swung, and elections conceivably decided, by glorified showboating.

This is not to deny the potentially beneficial effect of pre-election debates. They provide a unique platform for candidates to, ideally, explain their positions on key issues and spar with each other over them, illustrating competence, mastery of facts and the ability to find flaws in the logic of their opponent. The exchange happens on a national stage in the weeks leading up to the elections and gives voters, many of whom do not have the time or inclination to spend hours on the ins and outs of policy development, a chance to observe the candidates and learn about issues they may previously have known little about.

The problem lies not in the debates’ existence but in their structure. They are an hour and a half in length, cover more issues than I can count and afford candidates approximately two minutes each to make statements and respond to each other. The idea that such a format could do anything to clarify policy issues or distill them in such a way that they might help voters to make informed decisions on Election Day is patently ridiculous. Two minutes here or there is nowhere near enough time to explain what exactly Obamacare does and when, much less what, its effect on Medicare, the economy and overall health might be.

Debates can and should have an important place in the electoral process, but they need to be reformed. They must have more structure, not simply a moderator asking a general question at random intervals and shifting topics at whim. Most importantly, candidates must be given lengthy, uninterrupted periods to talk and subsequent, similarly lengthy, uninterrupted periods to respond to what the other candidate said. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, for example, saw the first candidate speak for 60 minutes, followed by the second speaking for 90—an opening argument and a response to the opponent’s opening—followed by the first candidate responding for 30 minutes. A similar, though not necessarily identical, model should be employed today on the presidential level. Debates are of far too much importance to be reduced to sound bites and blatant fact-spinning that neither candidate has the time to properly address, and if they cannot be reformed, they should be scrapped.

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