What's Wrong with Presidential Debates?

Following last week’s abysmal CNBC-hosted debate the reaction among conservatives has generally fallen into one of two categories: blame CNBC moderators for asking superficial and openly hostile questions; or blame the RNC for failing to demand conservative moderators for GOP primary debates. While these are both valid points, they miss the larger problem. The format of GOP primary “debates” virtually guaranty that sniping and sound bites will prevail over substantive discussion.   If we want to hear meaningful analysis of important issues we have to go beyond getting better moderators. We have to fundamentally rethink what a debate should look like. It’s the format, stupid!

If you ask most historically literate people what were the most important and consequential formal debates between politicians in U.S. History and they’ll name the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This was a series of seven debates in 1858 between Republican Abraham Lincoln and his Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas. The debates centered almost entirely on one issue, slavery, and the format was as follows: One candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then the other candidate spoke for 90 minutes, and the first candidate was allowed a 30-minute rebuttal. Lincoln ultimately lost the race for Senate, but his debate performance made him a national figure in the anti-slavery movement and a credible candidate for President of the United States two years later.

Now we all know that Lincoln and Douglas were brilliant orators, but it wasn’t just their brilliance that made those debates so influential. It was the format: Seven debates, 3 hours each, focused almost entirely on one overwhelmingly important issue. They had time to seriously examine the issue from every possible angle, and educate their audiences in the process. Can you imagine any greater contrast than between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the spectacle of 10 candidates asked dozens of different questions and given 30 or 60 seconds (if that) to answer them? I doubt if even Lincoln could make an important argument under the latter circumstances.

So why not fix the format? I have a simple proposal. Reduce the number of candidates in each debate to two and have the candidates’ address one pre-determined issue per debate. No moderator; just a timekeeper. You could still include the 10 leading candidates if you like. Just pair them in a series of matchups. Build excitement for interesting pairings: Paul vs. Cruz; Fiorina vs. Trump, Bush vs. Rubio. I’d watch those debates. Wouldn’t you?

I know, I know. They say modern audiences lack the patience for a real debate. We’ll all get bored and go back to our smart phones if forced to engage our brains for more than one or two consecutive minutes. That’s the received wisdom of our time. But here’s a crazy notion. How about we actually try it, and see what happens? What have we got to loose? If a more serious debate format flops we can always go back to putting on beauty pageants.

I have a hunch that people are hungry for substance. Give them a real debate, with time to explore the facts, the philosophy, and how it all fits in with the larger picture of where we want to go as a people. They’ll be fascinated. After decades of being infantilized they’ll relish the opportunity to be engaged at the level of adults to be convinced rather than children to be managed.

Let’s debate, really debate, the future of our country.