A Modest Proposal About Presidential Debates

Published September 30, 2020

I am rather exhausted after watching tonight’s Presidential debate.

As a very active debater in high school and college, and later the debate coach at The University of Chicago, I am annoyed that these events are even called “debates.” They are actually poorly-controlled joint news conferences. 

Any time real debate is joined, let alone any time a genuine clash of issues arises, the rules compel the moderator (or the moderator feels compelled) to quash it.  Tonight’s experience was mostly that of listening to three men talking over each other. I would prefer it if a real debate format were adopted.

For example, imagine if one candidate were given 30 minutes for an opening speech;  the opponent were given 40 minutes for a combined opening speech and rebuttal;  and then the first candidate were given 10 minutes for rebuttal.  No interruptions and no overtime would be allowed;  when one candidate had the floor, the other candidate’s microphone would be off, and each speaker’s microphone would go dead at end of the allotted speaking time.  There would be no duty to use all the time to which one was entitled;  and no unused time would go to the opponent.  If the debate finished ahead of schedule, the talking heads in the studio would have to fill the rest of the network’ programmed time;  they’d find a way.

Under such a regime, each candidate would have to decide which issues were worthy of discussion;  in what order to present them;  into how much detail to delve;  how flowery or businesslike the oratory should be;  and what issues should be ignored.  If a candidate finished in less time than slotted, the public could decide whether or not to reward economy of thought and speech or to punish failure to address topics adequately or at all.

Listeners could judge for themselves if a speaker’s choice of issues addressed the public’s priorities, and if the speaker’s arguments held water.  If a speaker were a gas bag, droning on for too long just because there was time available, that would be instructive, too.  If a speaker ignored the opponent’s most important and salient points, that would also be subjected to the judgment of the viewers.

Perhaps such a format — similar to, although fully half an hour shorter than, the format of the debates that riveted the attention of simple Illinois prairie-dwellers in 1858, when Lincoln and Douglas debated — would fail to hold the attention of moderns with short attention spans.

Very well, the format could be modified and enlivened.  It could be made more entertaining at the price of requiring more work and nimbleness on the parts of the candidates.  Even so, we could have lively but true debates without intrusive moderators controlling the substantive agenda.

For example, Candidate A and Candidate B could each have 15 minutes for an opening.  Then Candidate B would be given a minute to ask a question or questions of Candidate A;  and Candidate A would be given 2 minutes to answer the questions.  Then the roles of questioner and answerer would be reversed, and Candidate A would be given 1 minute to put a question or  questions to Candidate B.

After this first round of opening speeches and Qs and As, there would be another round, with the speaking and questioning orders reversed, of 15-minute statements, 1-minute question periods, and 2-minute answer periods.  That could go one for another two rounds, for a total of four rounds in all, and would conclude with 5-minute closing statements by each candidate.  That format would come in at just under 90 minutes, which was the length of the first Presidential debate of the 2020 cycle.

Once again, choice of issues and the form of presentation would be entirely up to each candidate during the speeches.  The questions would be chosen, and would be propounded, by the candidates themselves.  The public could judge the candidates on their choice and prioritization of issues.  Even better, the public could decide if the candidates, and not the moderator, asked the questions they wanted to hear.  Viewers would also evaluate the validity, relevance to national concerns, insightfulness, and fairness of their questions as well as on the soundness of their respective answers.  Some questions might be surprises, even “gotcha” questions.  Voters would decide if the questions, no less than the answers, reflected well, not on the journalist-moderator but on the candidate-questioner.

The moderator would be relieved of playing boxing referee.  The nation would learn what issues and what questions were thought important, not to the debate moderator, but to the candidates.  And if the candidates were wise, witty, well-informed, courteous, pugnacious when appropriate, capable of good time-management, and to-the-point — or not — voters could judge for themselves.

More true debate, I say, and less staged pugilism.  The moderators should explain the rules, introduce the debaters, call time, and nothing else.

The first Presidential debate of 2020 was built around the needs and desires of journalists, campaign staffers, and partisan spinners, not around the needs of the voters — or, frankly, of the candidates.

We can do better.