A debate is “a formal discussion on a particular topic in which opposing arguments are put forward.” The first debate between presidential candidates occurred between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. The two men outlined their philosophies and plans for the country in a series of seven different meetings. In those historic dialogues they rotated their roles with the first speaker delivering a one hour speech outlining his platform followed by an hour and a half rebuttal from his opponent and finally a thirty minute response from the lead speaker. There were no moderators nor unexpected questions. Instead the proceedings focused on the substantive issues of the day and gave each man the opportunity to highlight his beliefs.
While transcripts of the Lincoln/Douglas debates are studied by historians to this very day, the idea of having presidential candidates engage in discourse with one another didn’t really catch on until the middle of the twentieth century when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously met for a series of televised debates. In those encounters politicians and their parties discovered the power of the camera and sound bites. Richard Nixon, who had been the frontrunner in that race, showed up without makeup after a bout with the flu. He appeared to be tired and listless next to John Kennedy who quite smartly wore camera ready makeup to highlight his good looks and energy. The American public was captivated by the noticeable difference between the two men. The tide of popularity turned and John Kennedy went on the win the election.
Even then, the idea of having a televised debate between the opposing sides did not immediately become the norm. It was not until 1976, that the League of Women voters sponsored another debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. From that time forward there have been a series of dialogues between both presidential and vice presidential candidates. Over time the process expanded to include discussions during party primaries. American voters have come to expect televised debates as an integral part of the election process.
Theoretically the moderators of such debates are supposed to simply ask questions and insure that time requirements are fairly imposed. Participants are informed prior to the sessions regarding the procedures and time limits. The expectation is that each candidate will have similar opportunities to speak and defend his or her comments. Of late both the moderators and the candidates have had difficulty following the rules. We have all seen examples of facilitators injecting themselves into the dialogue by interrupting and arguing with the politicians, as well as candidates who veer from the plan by ignoring time constraints or speaking out of turn. Perhaps there is nothing more egregious, however, than the types of questions being posed.
I suspect that I am fairly typical of the American electorate. As someone who is not an avid member of either political party I do not always know the policies and beliefs of each and every candidate. I do my best to read as much as possible and to form my own opinions but I appreciate the idea of a debate as long as it allows each person to outline his/her views without any form of bias from those who are facilitating the discussion. I demand neutrality so that I may learn for myself what the respective candidates have to offer. I want to see a discussion of real issues, not personalities. While I always despised Richard Nixon and thought he was a crook long before events would substantiate my feelings, I tried not to judge him based solely on appearance in that infamous debate. My support of his opponent, John Kennedy, was founded on an appreciation of his platform of ideas, not his looks.
My expectation when I tune in to a political debate is that I will be able to hear exactly what each of the candidates believes. I want to know how he/she will tackle the economy, keep our country safe, deal with difficult issues, unite us as a nation. I am not the least bit interested in superficialities. I want to hear substantive questions and responses, not inquisitions. Beginning a major debate with the trite interrogatory, “What is your weakness?” is sophomoric and a waste of my time. A much better introductory remark might be, “You have three minutes to outline your economic plan for the country.” Follow up questions should then be based on the information that each of the candidates offer with opportunities for rebuttal. The moderators should be all but invisible in the process. The debate must be between the political participants, not between a specific candidate and one of the moderators.
It’s fine to ask difficult questions but not those designed to insult or embarrass the candidates. Asking, “Do you like your job?” is silly and meaningless. Instead it might be rephrased to provide concrete information, “What do you see as your most important accomplishments as a Senator and how will that work influence your tenure as President?”
I suppose that television producers want drama and entertainment whenever they invest time and money into hosting a debate. The idea is almost always about garnering ratings and a dignified and meaningful debate of the type seen in the Lincoln/Douglas dialogues of long ago would probably not play well with today’s audiences. In many ways we have become superficial in what we hope to see. Our attention spans are short. Both the television executives and the political candidates play us whenever there is a debate. The man or woman who voices the best zinger is the one that we seem to remember and value. The whole thing becomes a bit of a circus bringing to mind H. L. Mencken’s infamous quote, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
We have the power to change the way things are. In many ways the sad state of public discourse that we now see is there through our own fault. If we give the impression that this is what we want, the powers that be will continue to feeds us ridiculously flawed coverage of politics. The debates will be only slightly more refined than reality programs. We have to move beyond dynasties of ducks and Kardashians if we are to be able to really hear the voices of those who would be our leaders. The stakes are too high to treat the coming elections as we would tryouts for high school cheerleader. It should not be about the person who entertains us in the moment but the one who will consider our future and be willing to make choices based on what is best for everyone, not an interest group. That is undeniably difficult, almost as hard as deciding who that person is among the vast array of candidates. We will only feel comfortable casting our votes if we have the information that we need. We must demand that those who sponsor public debates will always understand that it is not about them. We are not the least bit interested in whether or not a journalist scores points in a debate, furthering a career. The good ones should be so fair and neutral that we hardly notice that they are present. The limelight must focus on understanding the beliefs of each candidate. Then and only then are we prepared to make the best possible choice when we find ourselves in the voting booth.