Here's how presidential debates should actually work

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Tuesday September 27th, 2016

Nothing like last night.

Watching my Tigers go down to the Indians last night was not much fun, especially since we had to swallow the very tough pill of watching the Indians celebrate on our field after clinching the American League Central Division title by beating us 7-4 last night. (So fine, OK, congratulations Indians, I guess, whatever, jerks . . .)

But I'm still glad my family and I went, and did not stay home to watch the embarassment that was the latest incarnation of our modern-day, media-driven bastardization of the presidential debate. I've seen all your opinions on social media about who won, who lost, who will benefit, etc. I couldn't help but notice that 100 percent of the people who commented think their preferred candidate not only won but dominated.

What a shame that these spectacles are not the useful exercises they could be. The nation would truly benefit from a focused, substantive discussion of the issues by the candidates. I would even watch. But we never get that with these debates. We get staged performance art in which the star of the show is neither candidate, but someone who better resembles a game show host than someone overseeing an essential exercise in the functioning of a self-governing people.

There is no point in watching this. There is no point in opining after the fact with your "analysis". The whole thing is a joke.

But it doesn't have to be.

There are very achievable changes we could make in these debates, changes that would transform them from the clown acts they are today to something truly useful. And I defy anyone to tell me a debate as I'm about to describe wouldn't be better than the festivals of foolishness we witness today. Here's how to do it:

  • Eliminate the involvement of the media completely, as "moderators" or as "fact-checkers" or in any other role. Their job is to report, not to determine the direction of the event. Get them out.

  • Use high school or college debate teachers as moderators, and limit the moderators' role to enforcement of time limits and other rules, and to the introduction of topics, which I'll deal with in the next two points.

  • No candidate gets asked a question the other candidate is not also asked. No asking Trump about his tax returns and the Iraq War, while Hillary gets asked about something entirely different. That's not a debate. That's a joint press conference. End that. So then how would questions work? Well, they actually wouldn't, because . . .

  • No questions. At least not from the moderator. The direction of the debate should be framed only in terms of broad topics, and both candidates should know in advance what the topics will be. So, for example, if you're going to have a 90-minute debate, maybe you've established five topics and set aside 18 minutes for each one. The first one could be the economy. All the moderator should do is indicate the next 18 minutes will be on the economy, and indicate which candidate will speak first on the issue. Then, within established time limits, the two candidates go back and forth on the topic. The first candidate will have a bit of an advantage in that he or she can frame the topic with an opening statement, but you can even that out by alternating who goes first.

  • No "fact-checking," except by the candidates themselves. Candy Crowley's abortion of a performance in 2012 is the best illustration of this, although Lester Holt's claim last night that stop-and-frisk had been "found unconstitutional" is a pretty strong contender too. But even without the egregious examples, it simply isn't appropriate for third parties to be doing this during a debate. If you're afraid of your opponent saying something false, then you'd better be prepared with the facts. And if you're not, too damn bad. It's no one else's job to help you.

  • No topics pertaining to campaign tactics or tangential matters. Policy substance and matters of governance only. The candidates can bring up whatever they want, of course, but I do think the moderator should have the authority to re-direct a discussion that's gotten totally off topic. What we don't need is for one of the topics to be "birtherism" or "Hillary's schlock, homebrew e-mail server" or "tax returns." There is plenty of time outside the debates to talk about those things. Dealing with them in a debate is wasting everyone's time.

Replace the current format with what I've just suggested, and you get a serious and substantive discussion about the things that really matter. Leave it the way it is, and you get preening media narcissists driving the discussion with nonsense questions while putting their thumbs on the scales for their preferred candidate.

And if anyone wants to defend the current format as preferable to what I've just proposed, I'd like to see you go ahead and try.

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