We’ve had a bunch of presidential debates and we’ll have more this fall. But already there is a sameness to the proceedings. National security comes at the end and gets the least attention. Candidates are allowed to get by on platitudes. The follow-up questions are nonexistent or poor. And far too much time is granted to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) in what has become a sort of contest among debate moderators: Who can extract the most insane comments from the Texas crackpot?
But like Social Security, this is a problem that is easily fixed. (As Charles Krauthammer writes today: “Of course it’s a Ponzi scheme. So what? It’s also the most vital, humane and fixable of all social programs. The question for the candidates is: Forget Ponzi — are you going to fix Social Security?”)
Here are five suggestions for future debates. The single most helpful change would be to ask very few questions and give the candidates plenty of time to answer. Why ask 15 questions with one-minute answers? In Sen. Jim DeMint’s South Carolina forum we heard a handful of candidates speak at great length on a limited number of topics. It was easy to tell who had things to say and knowledge about the subject matter and who did not.
Likewise, the moderators should begin each question with: “What specifically would you do on . . .” Mitt Romney put out a jobs program. So did Rick Santorum. Where is everyone else’s? Rick Perry talks about the burden of regulations. Would he abolish the Environmental Protection Agency? Keep Food and Drug Administration but reform it? There is a certain hubris in politicians who offer themselves as presidential material but lack an agenda. This, by the way, was why many conservatives pined for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to run — he actually knows what we should be doing on a range of issues.
Moderators also need to listen to the answers and ask decent follow-up questions. Wolf Blitzer was so bad in this area that Romney at one point jumped in to press Perry on what his position on Social Security was. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to let the candidates ask follow-ups of their competitors.
It’s also preposterous to overlook national security. Iran is on the verge of getting the bomb. We’ve become a non-player in the Middle East. Our military is deteriorating. Let’s have a debate with at least a third of the time devoted to foreign policy. And once again, force the candidates to be specific. What do they think of Russian “reset” and how would they respond to Russian aggression in Georgia, Russian human rights abuses and Russian obstructionism in the Quartet? Would they let Russia into the World Trade Organization? These aren’t gotcha questions. To the contrary, we should know which candidates have a grasp of some very basic elements of foreign policy.
And finally, personal questions should be meaningful. I don’t give a darn about “Elvis or Johnny Cash?” I don’t care what each would bring to the White House. But I am curious as to how their faith affects how they govern. I want to know why Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has gone through staff like crazy. I want to know why Perry thought it was fine to live high on the hog on the taxpayers’ money. I want Romney to tell us if he was bothered by applause for letting people die if they don’t have health insurance. I want Rick Santorum to tell us how his children and the loss of a child affected his life. I want to hear Newt Gingrich explain why he was a failure as speaker of the House. These aren’t trivial matters. They go to the candidates’ character, values and abilities.
Candidates are in a position to demand better debate formats. And they should. But the responsibility lies with the moderators who seem to be trying their hardest to make the debates less, rather than more, illuminating. If the debates got harder the candidates would have to spend more time thinking about policy and the voters would be able to tell who knows his stuff and who doesn’t. That would make the debates really worth watching.