Presidential Debate Reform: A Radical Proposal

Presidential Debate Reform

But for a twist of fate, today we would have seen the second of three Presidential Debates in the United States for the upcoming Presidential election, this one having been scheduled to be a “town hall” style debate. Combined with the generally negative reaction to how the first debate went, this has brought the topic of “Presidential Debate Reform” to the forefront of more people’s minds than ever before.

Presidential Debate Reform proposals have been circulated, and are usually rather modest and unimaginative. Perhaps the most popular idea in the corporate media is to give an outside party control over the microphones so that candidates cannot go over their time and still be heard. Whatever the merits of the idea, it’s clear that this is a manifestation of a more general principle that is adhered to in the Presidential debate system, which is that the “moderator” effectively directs and conducts the debate.

The flawed Concept of “The Moderator”

When one thinks about it, it is curious that a debate that is supposed to be between two candidates is actually, in terms of the format used, more akin to a question-and-answer session or interview. The moderator chooses the questions, the moderator asks the questions, and each the candidate answers the questions. Between all of this there is strikingly little emphasis on actual dialogue or debate between the candidates.

I believe this is at the root of the most common complaint about the process, that after an hour and a half of the moderator asking all these questions, the voters only have scraps of information about each candidate’s views and don’t have a very good idea of how he or she reacts under pressure. The degree to which each candidate’s views are well-developed and well-considered is often obscured. The ability of each candidate to ask penetrating questions and to drill down to the heart of an issue is also not revealed in the process.

While most people, including myself, would readily agree that this process is better than nothing, I believe Presidential Debate Reform should focus on correcting these deficiencies, as opposed to ultimately petty issues like how orderly a particular candidate is behaving.

This Electoral Politics of Adamas Nemesis

I endeavor to write the Adamas Nemesis blog from a position that stands above electoral politics. In the widest sense of the concept of course everything is political, but the particular mode of politics that infuses this blog seeks to cultivate a perspective in the reader that transcends particular candidates running in particular elections in particular countries, instead focusing on general principles and pathways to human flourishing on a large scale of space and time.

I have my views on particular candidates and parties, but it is ultimately policy, principle, character, and culture that matters, not which candidate is pulling ahead in which horse-race poll or which person had the best one-liner that particular day. Our politics focuses far too much on the short-term and the petty. My contribution to the discourse seeks to lead by example and point in a better direction away from all that. Even in my conversations on Twitter and Mastodon, where I feel much freer to be more explicitly political, I deliberately de-emphasize the short-run politics of the petty and the personal and instead emphasize the long-run politics of policy and principle.

Some of you, my readers, might view this blog as an oasis away from politics, and you might even be largely correct. This, however, is not truly my intention. While I do endeavor to avoid posting about horse-race campaign news or the outrage of the day, politics does have a place here. My article “Lockdown, the Culture of Fear, and the Politics of the Future” is an excellent example, as is my very first post here, “Twilight of a Decade”, which to some extent analyzed the 2012 and 2016 United States Presidential elections.

I have actually thought this year about posting a series of articles on how hypothetically each major political party could flip each of the “safe states” in the United States. This would be in terms of the mathematics of swinging particular demographic groups or geographical areas, and how much would be required to achieve a particular result. Fascinating stuff in my view, but I think there’s little point to putting in the work with the 2020 election, and data four years fresher than what we have from 2016, less than a month away. Don’t be surprised if you see me posting a lot more about that this winter and into next year.

Even that topic fits into the theme of speculation, which is the closest thing this blog has to an overarching theme, subject, or niche. Anyway, back to the original topic of Presidential Debate Reform…

Abolish Moderators

As I said at the beginning the whole format of a moderator asking questions to each of the candidate is quite odd for a “debate”, and apparently Newt Gingrich agrees with my view. In his 2012 Presidential campaign he repeatedly challenged his opponents to debate him one-on-one for 90 minutes without a moderator, just a timekeeper, and he proposed the format again as recently as last week.

I agree with Gingrich: scrap the moderators. Conservatives have for some years now argued that debate moderators are biased against them, and regardless of your view on that it I hope it can be agreed more broadly that the format with the moderators is awful. Conservatives’ antipathy toward the “biased” moderators provides an opportunity to gain their support for reforming this part of the debate process.

Presidential Debate Reform #1: Timekeepers, not Moderators

Therefore my first radical proposal for Presidential Debate Reform is: replace moderators with timekeepers and have the candidates ask each other the questions.

This would reveal much more about how the candidates think, their adeptness at asking someone else a penetrating question, and what issues they themselves deem to be of importance. The excuses consisting of “the moderator didn’t ask it” and “I didn’t want to not answer this question about another topic” would no longer work in response to voters’ questions about ignoring an issue. If there’s an issue the mass media are allegedly ignoring, ask the other candidates about it! Bring it up!

In real life of course Presidential candidates have staffers and advisors who coach them and help them answer the questions the moderators pose. In this format their staffers and advisors would help them devise questions to ask the other candidates.

While in an ideal world each candidate would write his or her own speeches and think of his or her own questions, so that the voters can get a window into the mind of the actual person they’re electing rather than electing someone who’s a figurehead or a conduit for someone else’s thinking, it is not practical or desirable for the debating process to have the kind of complete control over each candidate’s sources of information that would be required to enforce such a practice. Even with coaching this Presidential Debate Reform I propose would have the key advantage of at least providing a window into how the advisors think, which is relevant to how a future administration, likely staffed by the same people, would think.

A foreign Moderator, if there must be One

If a moderator asking the questions must remain, I have perhaps an even more radical suggestion: employ a foreigner as the moderator. After all, the complaints about biased moderators in the United States center around the moderator having a point of view or agenda on American politics. Someone who is not an American would be much less likely to suffer from this problem.

One issue with this is that many foreigners, particularly those who work in the media industry, do in fact have strong views on American politics. However, this could be mitigated, perhaps by holding a contest with vetting of each candidate to be “America’s Next Top Presidential Debate Moderator” or some such. One pitfall of this is that an impartial foreign moderator might have complete ignorance of the issues at hand.

However, questions from other sources could be submitted by others and curated by the moderator for intellectual quality, which is rather independent of country-specific political knowledge anyway. Someone from a Western country would be best, since they are more culturally similar to the United States, but someone from northern North America or western Europe might be too wedded to the American cultural sphere. Latin America or, even better, eastern Europe would be best. Perhaps Russia would be the best place to look, since they’re a more independent world power. Now that’s a radical thought!

Presidential Debate Reform #2: Let Third Parties Debate

My second radical proposal is: let every candidate on enough ballots to win debate. This is not particularly radical; indeed, it’s probably the most commonly desired Presidential Debate Reform overall. Every election cycle, including this one, it’s pushed by so-called “third parties”, their nominees, and most groups focused on political reform.

Having every candidate with enough ballot access to win, an accomplishment that by the way is a feat in and of itself, has the rather obvious benefit of allowing the voting public to hear from every candidate they have the option of voting for. This year four candidates meet that criterion: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Jo Jorgensen, and Howie Hawkins.

One might object that a one-on-one debate would provide the top two candidates with more speaking time, but there is no real reason why the Presidential Debates in the general election could not be conducted with four candidates when primary debates routinely feature as many as ten candidates on the same stage without incident.

Presidential Debate Reform #3: Lengthen each Debate

This brings me to the third radical proposal for Presidential Debate Reform: lengthen each debate. As it is a debate is usually 90 minutes long. With two candidates that gives them a grand total of 45 minutes of speaking time each. If, for example, each topic is given a 15 minute segment, enough for a five minute response, a five minute rebuttal, and a five minute rebuttal to the rebuttal, that leaves room for six segments in each debate. Six questions with five minute answers doesn’t strike me as being a comprehensive dialogue about the issues that might face the next administration.

This is evidenced by the fact that various topics that large numbers of voters believe to be important are often given only a few minutes worth of time or are altogether excluded from the debates. Worse yet, the topics often repeat from debate to debate, so two debates that might hold 12 topics in practice harbor perhaps half that number.

Especially since the addition of two other candidates halves the speaking time each candidate gets, each debate should be at least doubled in length. Instead of an hour and a half, three hours. In a four candidate debate of the format I’m proposing, each candidate gets an hour of speaking time and gets to ask and answer three questions.

Three questions seems inadequate. So I have long pondered the possibility of extending each debate to a length of six hours. This might sound insane, but there is enough room in prime-time television to accommodate such a debate, to say nothing of the newer streaming and on-demand video services. Obviously there would need to be breaks, but it would serve as a good endurance contest in addition to a lively and thorough debate.

In a six hour debate with four candidates and 15 minute questions, there are 24 total questions, and each candidate gets to ask and answer six questions. Each candidate gets 90 minutes of total speaking time.

Over the course of three debates, this adds up to a total of 18 hours of time with 72 questions, each candidate getting four and a half hours of speaking time, and getting to ask and answer 18 questions each. That would be more than enough time to unearth any issue anyone would care to talk about.

Presidential Debate Reform #4: More Debates

My fourth and final radical proposal for Presidential Debate Reform is: hold a greater number of debates. As it is three debates are traditionally held, though at least one of the three will not be held this year. If there were a debate every week leading up to the election, there could easily be four debates in October and another set of four debates in September.

If this were combined with the idea of each debate being six hours long, across a total of eight debates there would be a total speaking time of 48 hours, or 12 hours per candidate. There would be a total of 192 questions. Each candidate would get to ask and answer 48 questions. That’s more than enough time and questions to dissect an entire party’s campaign platform and then some!

The format might even be varied, with the “town hall” style debate alternating with the more traditional style of debates on a weekly basis. Another possibility might be to host a six hour town hall and a six hour debate every week, for a grand total of sixteen debates. The sum for this would be 96 hours total speaking time, 24 hours per candidate, and 384 total questions.

This would be a grueling debate schedule, by far the harshest in the world to my knowledge. Only physically and mentally strong candidates would be able to make it, which would strongly tilt the playing field toward younger and more vigorous candidates than the status quo. That, in my view, would be, as the old phrase goes, “a feature, not a bug”. If a candidate can make it through such a gauntlet and still come out on top the rigors of the Presidency might seem almost easy by comparison.

Vice Presidential candidates might be put through a similar process, or they might even join them together with their running mates in the Presidential debates, which might be very interesting.

Many more Debates: Crazy enough to work?

An even more extreme proposal would be to structure the primary debates in a similar fashion, a six hour traditional debate and a town hall debate every week for a solid year before each party’s convention, perhaps with breaks for holiday weeks. A total of 104 debates over 52 weeks would lead to an incredible 624 hours of total speaking time and 2,496 questions per party. The number of candidates in each debate would of course determine each candidate’s share of the total.

If you put all of this together, it might sound crazy and for all I know might actually be crazy, but it would really put the debate into Presidential Debates, and serve as an ultimate test to prove one has what it takes to be the President of the United States. More thinking like this, instead of tinkering with microphones, is what is needed to have a debating process worthy of the extraordinarily weighty democratic decision that is demanded of American voters every four years.

2 Replies to “Presidential Debate Reform: A Radical Proposal”

  1. The moderator doesn’t keep the discussion on topic, or prevent one candidate from running roughshod over another. The moderator’s role is to confine discussion – and restrict thought – to what those who own the media networks and our political apparatuses deem acceptable discourse.

    If there were no moderators, why, politicians may let slip what they truly think and believe. They may reveal what’s meant to be kept secret. They might expose the public to radically different framing of certain issues and inadvertently trigger a paradigm shift.

    It’s not the right or the left that’s controlled opposition. It’s the media. It’s only meant to look like there’s a fight. As long as it looks good, it doesn’t matter who wins.

    And they need to frame it as if any alternative is uncivilized, total chaos. I mean, they’re not wrong – it would certainly be chaotic, but that’s how the universe has functioned since it came into being. There was chaos, and from the primordial womb rose creation, order.

    Is the truth really that scary? Is it so frightening to see and be seen as we are, noble qualities and vices on full display?

    The more people try to control things, the more control eludes them.

    This gives me a small sense of glee – that is the spark of hope nothing will ever snuff out. No matter how strong the totalitarian impulse may be, no matter how inevitable their victory appears to be, chaos will always triumph over them and lay their plans to waste.

    You can live in harmony with natural law or you can be devoured. The best efforts can hold it off for a time, but the nature of the human soul is to demand freedom, and the nature of truth prevents it from ever being totally obscured much less forgotten entirely.

    I agree – open the floor. If somebody’s on the ballot in all 50 states, put them on the stage and take away the ones bent on controlling thought.

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