How to improve the debates

I’m late to the party, but I want to add my voice to those who detested the formats used in the first televised debates involving the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. There were so many questions on so many different issues that it was hard to compare the candidates, and hard for them to answer any question in depth.

I thought most of the Democratic and Republican candidates did fairly well, given the dismal format. A particular tip of my hat goes to Ron Paul, who managed to project the most coherent ideological frame on the Republican side, despite the short amount of time he was given to speak.

How can these debates be improved? David Yepsen takes a stab at answering the question in his latest column, published in today’s Des Moines Register.

These are the points Yepsen makes that I agree with:

1. Hold fewer debates, and schedule them later in the season, when more people are paying attention.

2. Allow candidates to ask each other questions. (I think each candidate could be given one or two questions to ask any competitor.)

3. Limit the topics, so that each debate is focused on one issue area (e.g. foreign policy, economy, health care, environment).

4. Make the debates 2 hours instead of 90 minutes. With eight Democratic candidates and at least 10 Republican candidates, this makes sense.

5. Get better moderators. As Yepsen says,

Debates should be about the performance of the candidates, not the celebrity or actions of the moderator. Each candidate should be asked similar questions, and they should be kept short and simple.

Here’s where I disagree with Yepsen:

1. He wants to hold more radio debates so people will be less focused on how the candidates look. I would prefer debates to be televised and simultaneously broadcast on radio to reach the widest possible audience. Of course, if they do this it would help for the moderators not to ask questions beginning with, “Raise your hand if you think…”

2. He wants to allow opening or closing statements. He makes a valid point that candidates may be more responsive to questions if they know they will have a chance to state their top points in opening and closing statements.

However, I’m going to have to side with the majority of debate organizers who think these are a waste of time, especially with both parties’ fields as large as they are. I also think that candidates will continue to be non-responsive to some questions, because that’s a basic point of political communication: answer the question you want to answer, even if that’s not the question you were asked.

3. He wants to have separate debates for the top-tier candidates. If we had done this last cycle, Howard Dean probably never would have broken into the top tier.

Also, there may be a candidate who is top tier in some early states but not in others.

I think it’s a good thing to force the top tier candidates to make the case about why they are better than all the other alternatives. Let the viewers or listeners decide based on the full range of options.

4. Yepsen calls for using polls “to determine the issues people most want the next president to address, and then the candidates should be asked about those questions. Otherwise, moderators and candidates can easily get sidelined into the latest gaffe or news development in a campaign.”

But we don’t need to take a poll to know the important issues the next president will need to address. If the debate topic is health care, the important questions suggest themselves (covering the uninsured, reducing costs, providing prescription drug coverage, expanding preventive care, etc.). The same goes for the other big issue areas.

All we need is for moderators to show some intelligence and restraint.

Brian Williams and Chris Matthews both did poorly in selecting questions to ask, but that doesn’t mean that professional journalists couldn’t come up with better questions without relying on polls.

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