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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How to Improve the Presidential Debates

From their inception, televised presidential general election debates have been an entertaining, rich cultural ritual. Consistently suspenseful, rancorous, and illustrious, the debates, a decades-long staple of the campaign season, are a spectacle. They are also, almost always, commonly misunderstood as conventional wisdom often trumpets them to be of greater importance to the final election result than what political science research tells us is true.

All too often though, what these debates are not is: informative. Tested soundbites, vapid skirmishes, and rhetorical flourishes are far too easy to come by in the debates. Rather than getting lost in policy minitue, they get lost in the tired Washington trope that is the "spin room."

Thankfully, there are serious suggestions as to how to reform the debates. The widely renowned Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has issued such recommendations, once and for all. When I first heard of these recommendations, I was thrilled in no small part because, in eighth grade, I gave, really, my first-ever speech.

My "8th grade speech," as the annual rite of passage was known at Wyoming Seminary Lower School, focused on how we could make presidential debates more substantive. In my research, I uncovered various surprisingly frequent and informed criticisms of the current presidential debates structure. These objections to the debate formats, as we know them, are entirely clear and compelling.

The suggestions of the Annenberg Center at UPenn are seemingly a direct answer to those criticisms. Pleasingly, these recommendations just so happen to be similar to those made in my eighth grade speech. Most importantly, the debates, as they are today and as the Annenberg Center recognizes, lend themselves to jocular one-liners, courtesy candidates like Ronald Reagan and Lloyd Bentsen (most notably), intense back and forth clashes like the ones Barack Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in during the 2012 town hall debate, and prime "gaffe" opportunities like Gerald Ford's 1976 quip on eastern Europe.

In a PBS NewsHour special on debates, George H.W. Bush lamented this aspect of our campaigns. Bush, who famously looked at his watch and expressed incredulity at a question on the national debt during the 1992 town hall debate, decried the "show business" involved in debates. "It's not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been," Bush told Jim Lehrer seven years later.

To combat this nature of debates, the Annenberg Center has recommended getting rid of the large live studio audience component. In my speech, I called for radio-only debates so as facial and other cues, as well as physical appearance and other attributes, would not have any influence on viewers. However, ridding of the large studio audience would have a similar effect. It would lessen the sporting match-like nature of the debates which currently are far too similar to performance-type theater.

Surely, the boisterous audience reaction in 1988 made Lloyd Bentsen's 'You're No Jack Kennedy' a more effective line; certainly, the laughs that filled the room in 1984 made Ronald Reagan's "age and experience" line against Walter Mondale more memorable. More recently, in an often overlooked debate moment, George W. Bush's nod to Al Gore, as he awkwardly closely approached him during a Q and A, in the 2000 town hall debate was buoyed by the audience reaction that clearly favored Bush.

Another frequent criticism of the debates is the fact that the candidates so freely break the rules on time limits. Many observers noted that Barack Obama spoke for longer than Mitt Romney during the first 2012 debate even though, theoretically, they are given the same opportunities for question, answer, and rebuttal. This shouldn't be the case as there ought to be an obligation to be fair and impartial and that means the debates should adhere as strictly as possible to the TV equal time principles enshrined in our federal campaign laws. Again, the Annenberg Center, with their "chess clock" suggestion of 45 minutes allotted for speaking time per candidate, provides a solid recommendation.

Lastly, a key objection to the current debate model is the lack of diverse, serious, and substantive issues discussed in the debates. In my eighth grade speech, I pointed to studies that demonstrated how vital issues like urban poverty, trade, environmental justice, civil liberties in national security policy, and the impact of the war on drugs were all routinely ignored in presidential debates.

This problem persisted in the coming years. In fact, during the 2012 general election debates, abortion rights, gay rights, free trade, voting rights, and climate change -- very salient issues in our contemporary political debate -- and other policy matters were never mentioned. Gun control, which was thrust into the forefront of the national political agenda mere months after the 2012 election, was only mentioned once and the state of America's poor, a category that grew significantly in the Great Recession, was largely ignored.

In the United States, we pride ourselves and our political system on being model examples to the world of how representative democracy is supposed to work. The best way to ensure that we are living up to our values, in this regard, is to strengthen the discussion of a range of important policy issues in these debates. In my speech, I called for the abolition of the Commission on Presidential Debates, as this group of Beltway partisan elite lobbyists focus on issues that they are more attuned to, as opposed to what affects tens of millions of viewers. The Annenberg Center, on the other hand, has devised serious recommendations that would go a long way towards improving the issues discussed.

These include "expanding the pool of potential moderators," broadening and expanding the pool and methods from which questions are drawn so as to include queries from groups made up of "knowledgable experts" and university professors (among other actors), and some kind of further audience input in questions. These steps would undeniably diversify the questions asked and in case one needed any convincing on that, look no further than the 2007 YouTube Democratic debate.

In that primary debate, viewers asked questions, like ones on international diplomacy with our enemies and gun safety laws, that probably would never have been fielded by the moderators. Consequently, we got insightful answers on questions from politicians like Barack Obama and Joe Biden in that debate and now, when they govern in the way they do on matters like Iran and gun policy, we know what to expect and what guides them as they revealed as much in that debate.

These fixes, if applied properly, will not cure all of the problems with our presidential debates. However, these recommendations, based on thorough and comprehensive research and analysis from bright minds and intelligent experts on these matters, are a proper way forward on debates. These suggestions would certainly improve our presidential debates and, as such, they should be adopted. Read the Annenberg Center's full report here.