Presidential debates aren’t really debates. These faux debates are bad for democracy. Debates should inform voters about the issues and challenge the candidates to move beyond their talking points and think on their feet. Under the current rules, these events have degenerated into non sequitur public speaking contests.
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the non-profit that sponsors these events, "the public deserves to hear and see the candidates offer and defend their positions on the critical issues facing our country in the most thoughtful and in-depth manner that television time constraints will allow. Loosening the constraints within the ninety minutes debate will allow for more serious examination of complicated questions."
After three debates and the pattern is clear. Loosening the contraints just made the problem worse than last season. The candidates don’t argue about anything; they take turns rattling off talking points. They don’t have to engage with each other, or even answer the questions. Since Sarah Palin blew off Gwen Ifill last week, the candidates know that they don’t have to respect to the moderator, either. Last night we saw McCain insulting Tom Brokaw. Both candidates felt entitled to ignore the time limits. As Brokaw put it, "I’m just the hired help."
Last night, John McCain simply announced that he was going to buy back distressed mortgages. It was his idea McCain insisted, not Obama’s and not Bush’s. That was that. McCain was never asked to explain what he meant, or describe how his plan differed from the alternatives, or answer any kind of criticism. Nope. He just asserted that he was going to do it and moved on. Neither he, nor Sarah Palin has explained what they mean by "fighting corruption on Wall Street."
Both candidates were allowed to trade meaningless generalities about sacrifices and taxes. Brokaw couldn’t get a word in edgewise and the audience members certainly didn’t get follow-up questions.
The problem with the current format is that the scope of the debate is too broad. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. How can we expect to hear a meaningful discussion of all of domestic policy in 90 minutes. The pattern goes like this: huge question, broad generality, next question.
The debates in their current incarnation are an anachronism. We don’t need four 90 minute rehashes of the same pat, self-serving answers. If you want soundbites, it’s never been easier to find them on TV or on the internet. Our email boxes are already overflowing with political spam.
If the debates are to add value, they must push the candidates out of their comfort zones and force them to engage answer questions that their handlers won’t let them tackle on the campaign trail. The best way to do that is to have debates on relatively narrow topics.
This time around, we should have had debates exclusively devoted to energy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic crisis.
We don’t need the debate to cover each candidate’s entire worldview and platform. We need a format that will test their actual debating skills and their grasp of specific issues. The current format is so easy on the candidates that even the weaker of the two can muddle along, carefully avoiding the questions and the specifics.
We need debates that separate the leaders from those who merely play them on TV.