A Democracy's Guide to Presidential Debates
I've been on record saying just how much I hate presidential debates. Everything about them is unbearable. And in the eight years that I've been watching them, they've only gotten worse. For some reason, there's no impetus to change them at all. As we approach the beginning of the 2020 debate cycle, we should truly reexamine how a majority of Americans are introduced to the people that may one day lead them into the future.
There are too many candidates who qualify in the primary.
This is no one's fault (except maybe Bill deBlasio's), but the last two primary cycles have seen an insane number of candidates on one side. In 2016, there were 18 total Republicans running, and now in 2020 there are two dozen Democrats in the field. While the DNC smartly established a threshold to participate in the debates, a move that both showed their commitment to grassroots candidates and their transparency in the methodology behind who could get on stage, they severely underestimated just how easy that threshold (1% average in the polls and at least 65,000 unique donors) was to overcome. It should have been obvious that this would be a problem, considering that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker were all expected to be contenders and easily qualify, setting the lower limit of candidates at five, the total number of candidates in 2016 (hey there, Lincoln Chafee).
Also smartly, the DNC has raised that threshold to a 2% average and at least 130,000 donors for the next debate. Perhaps those numbers should have been the thresholds for the first debate. Candidates like Mayor Pete have shown that if you're good enough, you can come out of nowhere and vault into contention. No candidate has an excuse for why they can't qualify, even in a field that had two mainstream frontrunners in Biden and Bernie. The DNC should use the data from this cycle to establish thresholds that would let at most ten candidates qualify.
There are too many candidates on stage in the primary.
This is a separate problem from having too many candidates overall. In the 2016 Democratic field of five, Jim Webb was disgruntled when he felt like he was barely getting enough time to speak. The Republican field was chaotic for all sorts of reasons, but there wasn't a single meaningful thing said by any of the candidates. Regardless of what you want to get out of a debate, you probably agree that every candidate should, you know, talk.
Having too many people on stage means that no one candidate gets a chance to make a significant impression, such that the status quo is likely to prevail. The status quo is in the frontrunner's interest, and debates are designed to give some measure of power and platform to the underdogs. Sure, primary debates will inherently matter more than general election debates because voters in the latter are likely to simply go with party affiliation, a crutch they cannot rely on when picking out a candidate to represent their party. But 'better than the general' isn't really a high standard, because no general election candidate this side of Jimmy Carter has seen a drastic shift from debate season.
There's a difference between town halls and debates.
The rise of town hall-style interviews by both CNN and FOX have added an interesting wrinkle to the role that debates play. In past debates, there were questions directed at one candidate specifically, e.g. the post-'grab them by the pussy' debate where Anderson Cooper directly asked Donald Trump about the video, or all of the Hillary e-mail questions that got Bernie fed up enough to come to her defense. Considering that most of the major candidates have done a town hall by now, all these individual-type questions would presumably have been filtered out by now, but even if new situations arise (like the Biden segregationist stuff), it shouldn't be a part of the debate. If a rival candidate brings up the issue, it can be talked about, but it shouldn't be lead in that direction by the moderator.
The questions are ass.
They suck. They really do. They're incredibly general, perhaps because the debate organizers might be afraid that an average viewer might tune out if candidates get into the weeds.
There's no real structure to how the debate progresses.
Again, this is more a criticism of the general debates than the primary debates, but there are too many things that the moderators try to cover. For each topic, each candidate typically gets a couple minutes to generally answer the question, followed by a few minutes for additional guided discussion. In the first Obama vs. Romney debate, Jim Lehrer covered the economy, the deficit, entitlements, healthcare, the role of government, and gridlock, all in 90 minutes!! Both of the non-town hall Clinton vs. Trump debates followed suit. In such a format, all you really have time for are boilerplate lines that the candidates have play tested in the numerous interviews they've given before this.
There are no penalties.
Unless I'm specifically knowledgeable about a given policy – which I might be because I follow politics, but the average American is unlikely to have that same level of engagement – there's a good chance that you won't know who's telling the truth. There was a moment in 2016 where Trump accused Hillary of calling the Iran deal the 'gold standard' of deals, and she inexplicably tried to refute this, and it didn't matter. You can provide fact checking numbers online and after the debate, but many have already tuned out by then. And let's not get started on the time limits.
There should be at most three people per debate.
Obviously this means that you can't have two dozen candidates, but that's just how life works. No job out there interviews 24 candidates for a single position. Maybe you can change the thresholds to winnow down the field, but it's just not sustainable. The DNC tried to avoid the idea of an 'undercard' debate (right idea) by drawing names randomly (wrong execution), which ended up making it an undercard debate plus Elizabeth Warren. Instead of watching two 2-hour debates featuring 20 candidates, wouldn't you rather watch four one-on-one matchups? You could get to see Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are very similar from an ideological perspective, hash out the actual difference between their respective labels of capitalism and democratic socialism. You could see the utter divide between every facet of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. You could see how two prominent black candidates differ in how they answer questions relating to identity and race compared to the rest. And you can actually get some meaningful crosstalk. It's hard to give a 'response' when you don't even know who or what you're really responding to. The debate isn't about a single candidate, it's about candidates (plural) and how they interact.
The questions should not be ass.
In the first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle (which happened in October 2015), moderator Anderson Cooper began the debate grilling Clinton about how she changed her answers depending on who she spoke to and questioned Bernie's self-proclaimed stance as a socialist (and also had other questions for the irrelevant Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb), allowing no crosstalk before moving on to guns. It might as well have been a series of one-on-one interviews instead of a debate. For the topics where some crosstalk was actually encouraged, Cooper would only ask vague transitional questions such as "Senator Sanders, what would you do differently," a question that is just not useful. If Beto O'Rourke calls out Joe Biden during an answer, the moderator shouldn't just cede the floor to Biden, but rather summarize a key point that Beto made and force Biden to address it specifically.
Also, questions which lead to applause lines and no tangible difference should be avoided entirely. Talking about how a candidate would reach across the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation is useless, because it's not about policy, and no one will have some secret recipe to make it work as long as Mitch McConnell controls the senate. It's just a dumb topic to discuss. You can talk about Supreme Court justices or the electoral college if you want too, but those are changes that will never be made, so why bother?
If you're going to talk about healthcare (a safe bet), it's not enough to just ask why Bernie supports Medicare for All, because we'll hear the same answer he's given a million times. He'll mention prescription drug prices, big pharmaceutical companies and CEO pay, and every buzzword that he could fit into a tweet. Rather, it should be asked why Sanders wants to eliminate private insurance companies if they would be would logically die out if they weren't able to compete with a government plan. If you're going to talk about a generational difference, it's pathetic to just ask why a 37-year old thinks he could be president or why a 76 year old could be out of touch. Instead, Buttigieg should be forced to explain why an older candidate couldn't do all the same things that he is claiming he would. It's not sufficient to let Buttigieg claim that a generational appeal is an approach if he can't explain the advantages of being from a certain generation.
Ask Elizabeth Warren what the purpose is of creating a government agency is an administration that disagrees with its purpose can internally sabotage it to the point that it no longer functions properly. Follow it up by asking Bernie why Medicare For All would have a lasting effect if a future administration can similarly depower it. You could ask Andrew Yang why automation is a big concern if there are still non-automatable parts of jobs that would still require humans to be present (e.g. a machine can drive a truck, but a person has to be there to ensure security and make certain it arrives) and whether a universal basic income is a sufficient tool to combat those who lose their jobs to automation (and what should be done with workers who no longer have useful skills). Follow that up by asking Kamala Harris why her Lift Act proposal wouldn't give anything to those who don't have an income (such as single mothers who can't or don't work) or those with many children, and why she hesitated to make this more like Yang's UBI. It's so incredibly easy to push at wedge issue, which makes it all the more frustrating that we don't truly get to see these differences play out on stage.
Most importantly, you don't have to do every topic during every debate! Chafee and Webb dropped out after the first one, and O'Malley only lasted through four. Clinton and Sanders had five debates all to themselves (there were nine total in the 2016 cycle), and they still burned through topics at an incredible rate. This helps if you have only a couple candidates on stage, because you can spend an entire debate on guns or education or whatever.
Time limits are the most obvious ones here – is it that hard to just cut someone's mic after the time is up? Why is that not a common sense solution? Instead of having the moderator and the candidate consistently clash, which can sometimes lead to accusations of bias or discontent with some candidates obeying the rules while others routinely breaking them, take it out of the moderator's hands. You have two minutes, so use your two minutes and fuck off. If a candidate uses time to address a previous question or topic instead of the current one, that's a 10 second penalty. If the other candidate interrupts, that's a 10 second penalty when it gets to them (or just have their mics off when they aren't supposed to speak). If, at the end of a response, the moderator deems that the candidate didn't appropriately attempt to answer the question, that's 10 seconds off their next response.
If the non-speaking candidate wants to respond to a certain point, they can have a buzzer that goes directly to the moderator, so the moderator can make a note of a given point and direct a question about that point when it comes time for the rebuttal. In addition to these limits, there should also be a running total of time that each candidate has spoken so far and the time lost due to penalties, and this total should either consistently be shown on screen or following the commercial breaks. During the breaks, the network's fact checker (or an independent fact checker agreed to by all debate participants) should count the number of lies and misleading statements by each candidate, and the moderator will mention the count and correct the lies on the record.
Debates are an incredibly important element of the democratic process. They give a forum for candidates to be challenged and defend their positions both on an ideological and practical policy level, and are a microcosm of the kind of president a candidate will end up being. In their current form, they are functionally useless because the candidates don't actually get to talk to each other. It's a better use of time to see a town hall event, where candidates get an opportunity to really explain and occasionally even flesh out their views. But the town hall is the candidate's forum, where they control the flow regardless of how much the journalist presses or directs. Debates are a time for disagreement and discourse. Candidates should be able to engage in both of those, so empower them to do so.
Let debate season begin.