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.)
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.
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.