There have now been several debates between the major Republican
candidates for president, and they have had impact on the contest for
the GOP nomination. But they have not been true debates, and in many
cases the formats, the moderators or the questioners have been notably
The primary criticism that I would make is that the candidates are given
questions determined by the moderators or questioners, many of whom
are neither sympathetic to Republicans or are unaware of the issues from
the conservative point of view. The second criticism is that the candidates
are forced to reduce their answers to variations of "sound bites," and do
not have sufficient time to explain their positions, nor to answer criticisms
of their records or policy ideas.
Not all of this is "bad," since a successful presidential candidate, and
subsequently, a president needs to have a full ranges of communication
skills, and these include the ability to be succinct and clear with the
smallest amount of political rhetoric.
I also realize that a true debate format is difficult if not impossible when
there are numerous participating candidates.
What might be a "truer" debate, and one that would give voters a more
complete impression of a candidate's viewpoints, knowledge and political
intelligence as the "debate season" comes to a close before the individual
primaries or caucuses?
I agree that such a format is not practical early in the campaign process.
As voters get to know the candidates through the early debates, media
interviews and political advertising, however, the candidate field naturally
gets smaller. Some candidates withdraw; others receive very low numbers
in polls. Since polling is the standard for inclusion in even the earliest
debates, it seems fair and consistent that a debate of two to four of the
"major" candidates is reasonable just before the voting begins. Instead of
thresholds of 2%, 5% or some other relatively low number as has been the
standard so far, the percentage in a compilation of recent polls should be
set higher, say at 10%, 15% or another higher number that reduces the
number of participants to four or less.
Format is the next most important factor. While the sponsoring network
or organization should be able to determine the theme (e.g. economic
policy, foreign policy, taxes, immigration, etc.), after initial statements
by the candidates, they should be able to ask questions of each other,
with adequate time for replies and rebuttals. A moderator should only to
serve as a timekeeper and referee. Moderators or newspersons should not
ask the questions. (A debate is not a press conference.) Questions from
the audience might be permitted, but should be chosen before the debate
by a panel made up of representatives of the candidates or of newspersons
representing both conservative and liberal points of view.
After numerous candidate debates, as we have observed now, such a new
format might be very useful to voters in forming their opinions about
candidates and issues. It is not necessary to hold an overlong debate, like
the Lincoln-Douglas debates were. That format fit a time when there was
no radio, TV, internet or other modern communications. It was not too
long for a 19th century audience. Today, shorter formats are much more
appropriate, but in recent years, the presidential debate formats have
become too short and too confining.
In a campaign year when both parties have a true competition for their
respective nominations (as was the case in 2008), there needs to be a
sensitivity to each party's perspective when organizing a debate. This year
so far, only one party has an open contest. Media bias should not be allowed
to be a factor in presidential debates.
After each party has selected their nominee for president, there will be a
series of nationally-televised debates. Based on recent formats, I think we
can improve these as well.
Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman
All rights. reserved.