The Presidential Debates

I have watched the TV broadcasts of both of the Presidential Debates that have been held during this election and I am left with a strong feeling that I’d still like to see the candidates actually debate.  Both of the events so far have had strict rules and structure that have substantially reduced their value.  The result has been that each has ended up being closer to a series of focused stump speeches.  True discussion and interaction between Senators Obama and McCain has been almost entirely non-existent.

The basic format used in both debates was that each candidate would have 2 minutes to answer any given question, followed by a 60-second discussion period.  Those discussion periods ended up almost always being short follow-up speeches rather than any kind of true back-and-forth between the candidates.  Almost every time, both candidates went over the specified timings, despite the protests of the moderators, but that was almost always due to verbosity rather than any generation of discussion.

The two debates were extremely similar in content, with some of the responses even being pretty much word-for-word the same.  The second debate did have a "town hall" format where voters in the audience asked the questions, but the questions were still pre-selected by the moderator and the audience members were not allowed to follow-up with any other questions or even requests for clarification.  In many cases, the answers weren’t really precise responses to the question being asked and generally they weren’t called on it.

On multiple occasions during each debate, one of the candidates clearly indicated an interest in responding to a point made by the other, but was not allowed by the moderator who instead insisted that it was time to move on to the next topic.  This was particularly frustrating since both candidates spent a lot of time giving alternate characterizations of the other candidate’s positions, but there was never enough back and forth to get to the bottom of what each candidate really would do. 

It obviously isn’t going to happen this year, but I really would like to see a loosely-structured joint interview/discussion with the candidates without such strict rules.  If the candidates start expressing differing takes on each other’s proposals, then I would like to see them continue going back and forth with clarifications and responses until the audience really does have a good idea of what the actual proposal is.  The current format seems to be more about who can present a more convincing obfuscation than it is about truly understanding where anyone stands.

Either of the moderators so far (Jim Lehrer or Tom Brokaw) certainly could conduct a very effective discussion if they were simply allowed to use their journalistic instincts to manage a true discussion.  Both of the moderators (especially Brokaw) actually came off rather poorly in the debates, looking more like strict teachers having to enforce overbearing rules than like journalists.  I honestly have a hard time understanding why well-regarded journalists would even want to be involved in such restrictive events where the ultimate value is fairly limited.

In this day where most people have access to hundreds of TV stations as well as the vast resources of the Internet, debates that seem to be intensely restrictive in time and content seem like a major anachronism.  I think one of the most important steps to bringing more truth and relevance into political campaigns is to better utilize today’s media to truly let the public get to know and understand the differences between the views and proposals of the two candidates.