September 11, 2019

A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate

With yet another debate among Democratic presidential candidates nearly upon us, now is a good time to consider the value of these events and whether the present format is serving us well.

Aside from anything that happens on camera, a candidate benefits from simply being in a debate, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Whereas a candidate like Joe Biden is well-known, a candidate such as Julián Castro is less familiar to the electorate and benefits substantially from the exposure afforded by a spot on the stage. Candidates, such as Tulsi Gabbard, who were cut from the pack this time, miss an opportunity to re-introduce themselves and put their policies before the public. Of course, participation in a debate is not a guaranteed benefit. Who can forget Rick Perry’s failure to remember the three cabinet departments he wanted to get rid of? (Ironically, of course, he now heads one of those.)

What we have come to call a debate is really not a debate in the formal sense, and the more people there are on the stage the less debate-like it becomes. With ten “debaters,” there is little opportunity for sustained disputation, and, unless moderators aggressively enforce rules of who can speak when, the event can quickly become a verbal free-for-all. Candidates trailing in the polls have every incentive to speak out-of-turn knowing, realistically, that they will be called on by the moderators less frequently than the more popular participants.

Moderators have conflicting objectives. They want to be (or at least seem to be) fair to everyone; they want to explore issues that have been raised in the campaign; and they want to produce engaging television. Should they try to give everyone equal time, knowing full well that some of the hopefuls have no chance of becoming their party’s nominee? And who wants to hear from the least popular candidate as much as from the front-runner anyway? Both to explore issues and to generate lively discussion, moderators have a tendency to play let’s-you-and-him (or her)-fight by asking participants to critique the policies of a particular rival. This can make for exciting television, but it often exaggerates the differences between candidates and leaves some participants out of the discussion.

Particularly at this point in the campaign, the usual debate format encourages fights over minutiae among people who largely agree with one another, and it rewards clever bons mots created in advance specially for the occasion. Debates (and the primary campaign generally) artificially encourage articulation of policies that are markedly different from (and, implicitly, better than) those of other candidates. Politicians generally, not only Donald Trump, are loath to admit to either having made a mistake or to having found another’s idea to be an improvement on the politician’s own.

Debates can be enhanced in small ways. Four years ago, I offered some possible improvements. (See “Suggestions for Presidential Debates.”)  But perhaps what we need is something quite different, at least during the early presidential primary season. I offer a debate-alternative below and suggest why I think it would be a helpful addition to our political toolbox. Others may have even better ideas. I do think we need better ideas!

Let’s face it; debating skills (or whatever skills are needed for what we call debates) are not an important skill required of the chief executive. In fact, skills needed to become president, particularly those observable to voters, are not necessarily the most important skills needed to be president. Candidates can exhibit more important presidential skills and give voters a better sense of just who they are by radically changing the nature of intra-party debates.

Here is my suggested format: Seat (not stand) the candidates in a semi-circle faced by the moderator. There should be no studio audience. Candidates are not allowed to have notes. The moderator will have chosen in advance a set of problems (not solutions) to discuss and an amount of time to be devoted to each problem. Although candidates could be given a problem list ahead of time, this is likely unnecessary, as the important issues facing the nation should be obvious. A surprise topic or two might usefully contribute to the program, however. Candidates are expected to discuss—this could mean arguing about—the nature and causes of the problem, as well as possible approaches to ameliorating it. Other duties of the moderator are the following:

  • Call on participants based on raised hands.
  • Without imposing a fixed time limit on contributions, ensure that no one dominates the discussion.
  • Keep the discussion on topic.
  • Do not allow discussion of measures to deal with the problem until a substantial consensus is reached about the nature and causes of the problem.
  • Insofar as it’s possible, give everyone who wants to speak an equal opportunity to do so.
  • Move on to the next topic when the time for the current one expires, irrespective of the state of the discussion. (The moderator should avoid interrupting a speaker if possible.)
 The event could begin with brief statements by the candidates without limit on what they may say. It should end with statements responding to the experience of what has just occurred.

This format has a number of advantages over the conventional one:

  • It provides a sense of how candidates approach problems and make decisions, important presidential skills.
  • It is likely to provide a better sense of candidates’ temperaments than does the usual high-pressure debate, with its need to upstage particular rivals.
  • It provides a better sense of candidates’ philosophical orientation.
  • It educates the audience about the issues of the day, something that provides insight into proposed policies.
  • To the degree that candidates put forth a plan devised in advance, they are forced to “show their work,” i.e., explain explicitly how their “solution” relates to their understanding of the problem.
  • It provides a sense of where the party itself stands and of the distribution of views within the party. The format encourages consensus, rather than uniqueness of ideas, offering a strong sense of the party. (Commentators have complained that people no longer know what the Democratic Party stands for.)
  • Ultimately, it should help candidates hone their proposals, based on ideas from other candidates.
This format is not perfect. For example, it relies on candidates themselves to criticize ideas that may not be implementable. (In the debates so far, participants have put forward many programs that would require the coöperation of Congress. These are unlikely to come to pass unless the Democratic Party achieves control of the Senate, in 2022, if not 2020.)

Debates later in the campaign season should probably be some variation of the conventional events.

Evidence suggests that, for many people, policy positions are less important than character, the 2016 election notwithstanding. My modified debate scheme may be more helpful to voters for whom that is true.

September 6, 2019

Arguing Against an Anti-abortion Argument

In a story titled “Plan C,” by Nona Liss-Schultz, in the current issue of Mother Jones, Alabama State Senator Clyde Chambliss is quoted as saying, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” That being a religious argument, of course, it is hardly a legitimate basis for legislation. There is nothing wrong with legislators taking religious concerns into account, however. But this argument is crazy even as a religious argument.

Chambliss’s reasoning can easily lead to a sense of powerlessness and a willingness to accept whatever fortune or tragedy comes our way. But fatalism is not a particularly useful philosophy, and a Christianity that rejects free will must necessarily reject salvation as well. I don’t think I exaggerate by paraphrasing Chambliss’s statement as don’t fuck with God’s plan.

If we are to accept a pregnancy as a God-given event not properly subject to human intervention, what other “gifts” of God should receive similar consideration? How about breast cancer? Muscular dystrophy? Polio? Swine flu? Are we to eschew medicine entirely? Why stop at medicine. Aren’t floods “acts of God?” Is it moral to try to avoid them, say, by building levies? You get my point.

But, back to the pregnancy thing. You may choose to think of pregnancy as an act of God, but, let’s face it, two people are directly responsible for it. Parents—willing or not—need to take responsibility for a largely avoidable event, not blame it on God. If the pregnancy was a human “mistake,” why should we prohibit a human correction?

On the other hand, contracting breast cancer or muscular dystrophy is, as far as we know,  a circumstance over which we have no control. Surely, such medical tragedies are more easily seen as God’s work than pregnancy. Is it “not our place as human beings” to intervene? Why is the case for non-intervention regarding pregnancy stronger than that for breast cancer?

Let’s face it, Chambliss, like so many “pro-life” partisans, abhor abortions for their own reasons, and they are willing to advance any argument, however illogical or inconsistent, to try to make abortions illegal. Their arguments, however crazy, must always be countered.

September 4, 2019

Happy Summer Day

Happy Summer Day
by Lionel Deimel

An ordinary drive across town
Past the usual scenery with its familiar flagpoles
Fronting fire station, bank, courthouse, high school
Flying red, white, and blue banners
Emblazoned against a cloudless azure sky
Below their bold silver finials
Evincing pride in a great nation
And announcing a happy day across the land:
There were no mass shootings yesterday.


The above poem is a second draft. I’m not sure if I will revise it further.

It seems that flags fly at half-staff frequently these days. As I drive past them, I sometimes have to ask why they are not flying high that particular day. Often, however, I know the flags are at half-staff in acknowledgment of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. These were not always so common.