Wednesday night. Romney vs. Obama. Live. The 28th episode in America’s long-running television series — the presidential debates — in which two men go on stage and face off without scripts or teleprompters, and with the ever-present possibility of getting trounced or humiliated. In presidential politics, a debate — a real debate — is a test like no other.
That’s why none of us has ever seen one. A true debate is just too risky. From 1960 onward, the events called presidential debates have delivered not clashes of of rhetorical greatness but the spectacle of two people engaged in dueling job interviews. These interviews unfold side by side in front of the same human resources representative, and the skill needed to land the position is much like the one eighth-graders rely on to win spelling bees: the ability to memorize the answers to the questions ahead of time, then repeat them, precisely as learned. Debates? Modern politicians don’t partake in debates. Not real ones.
Now, I serve on real debates. I know real debates. Real debaters are friends of mine. And these campaign-season sessions are not real debates. In fact, I would argue in the affirmative for the following proposition: We must change the format of the presidential debates.
Because the format is the problem. While the Commission on Presidential Debates, which stages these events, was criticized this year for booking too few female and minority moderators, and perennially for excluding third-party candidates, the more entrenched issue is the structure of the debates themselves. They are designed to keep the candidates from getting into trouble or embarrassing themselves by looking mean, uninformed or scared. That is a backward priority. A debate is a contest, a competition, a battle. The rules should be calibrated to produce the best contest possible, not to protect the contestants from themselves.
When candidates debate each other, they should debate each other. In a real debate, the participants engage, they grapple, they get into each other’s hair (metaphorically, of course). Without that clash of ideas and personalities, there’s no point in getting the two sides together on one stage. But in the presidential debates over the years, the rules have bizarrely permitted the candidates to “debate” without actually addressing each other. Some have spent the entire night studiously avoiding eye contact. Their escape mechanism is the moderator, the one person on stage whom both candidates must address, in a weirdly triangulated conversation, as they work through the questions the moderator poses. So it becomes those questions, not the candidates’ ideas or personalities, driving the discussion. It feels hollow. It feels forced. There’s a simple fix for this: Make these candidates talk to each other.
In February, during a CNN-sponsored Republican primary debate, nearly all the candidates ignored a question put to them by John King. It’s an old trick. He had asked each of them to come up with an example of a misconception voters might hold about his candidacy. Rather than answer, most went straight to some favored talking point on America’s greatness or President Obama’s failures, reading from the teleprompters in their heads. When King finally called Mitt Romney on this, reminding him of the original question, Romney shot back: “You know, you get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers I want. Fair enough?”