This isn’t the first year the presidential debates have been all but unwatchable. So I propose a handful of minor but useful reforms (for those who want to fix them) and a radical reform (for those who think them unfixable).
First minor reform is more time for answers. Granting aspirants to the most powerful office in the world only two minutes to explain complex positions (and less than that to rebut) is absurd. It tests no actual skill, and it leaves no space for persuading the audience rather than simply stating a view. If we don’t let candidates have at least eight minutes — the standard for most forms of high school debate — then we’re doing more harm than good.
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Second, there is no reason the moderator has to be a journalist, and a lot of good reasons to pick someone else. Putting a journalist on stage encourages our quadrennial round of dumping on the moderator for letting Candidate A get away with saying Y, as though what we call a debate is really a joint news conference with a higher power present to cry “Gotcha!” The purpose of the exercise is to hear the proponents of each side, not the moderator. Pointing out lies or errors or inconsistencies is the opponent’s job. The debaters argue; the moderator keeps time.
Third, if the moderators must be journalists, perhaps they might ask questions that are actually challenging. Not “What do you say to critics who …?”. Far better would be something like this: “Please tell us three important issues on which you believe the base of your party is mistaken, and why.” Testing for courage and principle, in other words, rather than for the ability to deliver the snazzy one-liner. Or, we might consider giving the candidates the questions in advance, thus testing their ability to think a problem through.
Of course, we would do better to eliminate the debates in their current form. They have little to do with skill at the job the candidates are seeking. Instead, we should invite the candidates to showcase their abilities at pulling the levers of policy. We should listen in as they work with advisers through challenges and crises.
To that end, I would propose a far more useful exercise. The moderator gives the candidates a scenario — perhaps an international crisis, perhaps a natural disaster, perhaps a scandal in the administration. Each candidate retires to a separate conference room with a coterie of advisers. We the audience watch the interaction between potential president and staff, for at least half an hour each, possibly longer. As the deliberations continue, more information comes into the room, disrupting what everyone thought a moment ago. The crisis worsens.
The new information is crucial. Suppose, for example, that the scenario involves accusations that the attorney general, a close friend, has taken a bribe. Conscious of the television audience, the candidate might arrive in the conference room and announce theatrically, “Friend or not, he’s fired!” — thus proving fidelity to grand principle. Ten minutes later, we learn that the accusation is false, the inculpatory records planted by hackers believed but not certain to be Russian. In playing to the cameras, the candidate has acted too hastily. At that point a cyberattack begins on crucial infrastructure. It’s a slow-rolling attack, and responsibility cannot be definitively determined. The candidate has to decide whether to fight back — perhaps with a pre-installed logic bomb in an adversary’s systems — or wait.
Neither candidate would be aware in real time of what the other candidate was doing with the same facts. We the viewers would.
We would be watching, for once, not merely the final decision, but the way each candidate interacts with staff and deals with a deteriorating situation. Yes, the canned scenario might prove melodramatic, but given our obsession with 3 a.m. telephone calls, we might as well see how our candidates are at taking them. Or we could make the scenario less dramatic and more dreary — for example by forcing aspirants and advisers to spend half an hour discussing how to spark economic growth.
However we structured the hypothetical scenario, we would be able to watch the process by which the candidates make their decisions. True, it wouldn’t quite be real. But it would be a lot better than what we have now.
And it would make great television.
Contact Mr. Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org.