A Debate Format That Works

The modern presidential debate is broken. Debate formats utilized this election cycle by the likes of CNN and Fox are inherently flawed in more ways than one, creating a terribly ineffective discourse on both sides of the aisle. The issue isn’t as pressing on the left; there are two candidates and their debates have effectively become the 2016 election’s personification of a ‘Friends’ rerun. You know what’s going to happen, but ‘Reba’ isn’t on for another half hour so you might as well watch it.

On the right, however, the remarkably flawed debate system showcases all of its flaws with elegant stupidity. Candidates turn into bloodhounds and instead of focusing on the issues, they battle for the last sound bite. (A valiant, but entirely purposeless effort they’ll always lose to Donald Trump.) The format doesn’t allow for an actual debate to happen. Moderators are lenient, time is too short, and everything flies off the rails with frustrating regularity.

How does one attempt to fix this broken system, then? Fear not, dear reader, I am here to offer some sanity amidst the turmoil that is the modern political donnybrook. For starters, debates have attempted to narrow themselves down to specific subject matter: economics, foreign policy, etc. This needs to be narrowed even further and there have to be more debates. Candidates will come to them, because an unwillingness to debate shows weakness, which one could argue didn’t do Trump any favors in Iowa.

Within these new debates, topics can be narrowed even further. Instead of covering the entirety of foreign policy, shorter, but more concise debates can cover subsections of those topics. (For example: immigration across borders or internationally, i.e., refugees.) While this may not lend itself to ‘Cracked’ articles and sound bites, it will hone the issues down to a legitimate level, whereas before they were addressed very superficially.

Next, you have to rid the format of that superficiality. In order to do that, speaking time limits must be increased. How on earth is a candidate supposed to solve social security in 120 seconds? These candidates are vying to be the Leader of the Free World, not America’s Next Top Model. The current format is conducive to pre-prepared miniature stump speeches. Nobody needs more of that. Give candidates more time.

More so, there isn’t any penalty in place for being disruptive. Candidates should raise their hand, as they learned in elementary school, to request the opportunity to respond to a statement being made by another speaker. If they raise their own voice, or attempt to interrupt, penalties shall be levied toward their next opportunity to speak. (Candidates would stop interrupting if they lost ten seconds every time they did.)

Last time you watched a debate, you probably noticed that candidates could care less about Megyn Kelly or Anderson Cooper flagging them when their time is up. New rule: cut their microphone ten seconds after their allotted time.

Caricature courtesy of ‘DonkeyHotey’ via Flickr.

Speaking order should be randomized entirely. It doesn’t make sense to give priority to top candidates. The purpose of a debate is to let each candidate be heard. If someone has earned the right to grace the stage, they’ve earned the right to be on a level playing field with front-runners. Otherwise front-runners maintain an advantage that doesn’t let other candidates progress.

Now, though, it is time for a reality check. I fully realize that many candidates would object to these formats. Debates have become caricatures of themselves that are manipulated by each campaign in an endeavor to reach an agreeable medium. Networks shouldn’t bend to these candidates. I think Fox did a fine job of that in Iowa, and I applaud that. If a candidate doesn’t want to show because they’re afraid of a real debate, so be it. Again, a conscious decision to avoid debate is akin to two things: fear of the debate and/or assumption that oneself is above said debate. We don’t need a commander-in-chief who considers either.

Finally, fact-checking should be rigorous and in real time. A slew of fact-checkers should be employed at the debate to immediately look into arguments loaded with cited statistics and “facts.” This can then be relayed to the moderator, who can bring the fact-check up and the next appropriate pause.

This format may be idealistic, but it is the only format that would allow Americans to educate themselves on potential candidates in a meaningful forum. This season’s charades of debates have been toxic to the political process. At one point or another, networks and candidates owe it to the audience to fix that. The numbers for many of the debates, especially the Democratic ones, are in a downward spiral, anyway. Why not change things up?

Connect with Brett Stewart on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RiversRubin

Trump: the catalyst for even worse debates. | Feature photo courtesy of Matt A.J.

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