Why the debates will not get better anytime soon

I had hoped to avoid weighing in on the debates – and the Republican debates, in particular.  The political media has covered this territory extensively in recent days, and, with the Democratic forum tonight and the FBN Republican debate next week, much of this ground will be covered yet again over the next few days.

For what it’s worth, my views on this are already well-established: these are not real debates, moderators are too influential and controlling, the rules are not designed to allow for adequate discussion of often very complex issues, the questions are often terrible, and there is usually very little correlation between performance in a primary debate and one’s ability to be a competent office-holder.  Opening and closing statements are a waste of everyone’s time (they are just quick excerpts of stump speeches, and for some are really just ploys designed to shorten the amount of questioning time) and lightning round questions should be absolutely forbidden.

There has been a lot of commentary about “tough questions,” “gotcha” questions, and biases of moderators.  That’s all kids’ stuff.  Get over it, if you want to be President.  But even if those were legitimate complaints, those issues all go back to the role of the moderators.  The debate should not be about the moderators; but they have become the stars of the show.  The moderators should get out of the way and play a smaller role: ask a few relatively open-ended questions and leave it to the candidates to steer the conversation, give them more time to talk, let them press each other for clarifications, and allow the candidates to both ask questions of each other and press each other for answers to those questions when the respondent tries to dodge or pivot.  The problem is, that’s an almost impossible format to permit in a time-compressed debate with 10 people on a network trying to achieve good ratings through the debate.

So I would make a few additional observations specific to this election cycle.  First, the chief problem with the Republican debates thus far – and they have been increasingly awful (I thought the Fox debate was the best of them thus far, hardly an impressive distinction) – is simply one of numbers.  There are too many damned people on the stage.  While I agree that the CNBC debate, specifically, was marred in part by moderators who seemed to be disproportionately interested in taking obscure subjects and using them to poke holes in the candidate, ultimately the moderators were placed in a bad position by their bosses: it is very difficult to fairly and equitably moderate a two-hour debate involving 10 people, almost all of whom have big personalities and will do whatever they can to obtain airtime.  Say what you will about the candidates in the undercard debates, but those undercard debates have been far more substantive.  Still not great, but better than the main event.  Why?  Fewer people to accommodate, more airtime for each, less of a need to posture and gesticulate for attention.  And in that environment, a really good debate performance will have a greater impact: just ask Carly Fiorina.  But I still say you cannot have a real, substantive, meaningful debate with this many folks to manage.  Individuals (like Fiorina at the CNN debate) might have a great night, but the debate as a whole will still be a waste of time for viewers.

Second, and related to the first observation, much of the reason why there are so many folks on the stage, and why moderators feel the need to press candidates with accusatory questions, is the desire for ratings.  I can completely see why ratings are important to a network generally.  But presidential debates should not be designed as primarily a vehicle for ratings.

Third, and related to the first two observations, I remain entirely baffled as to why the networks cannot split the difference.  I’m hardly the first person to say this.  Why not have two debates over a three hour period, with a break in between, featuring seven candidates each, randomly selected?  Or, randomly select the candidates and hold two debates of seven on consecutive nights.  Granted, my ideal debate model would not really work for a 7-person stage either, but it would be far better than 10.  Yes, the FBN main debate will feature only 8, which is a move in the right direction, but then you have to question the selection criteria.  That Chris Christie will not be on the main debate stage, and that Lindsey Graham will not be on any stage this time, is a shame.  We could obviate that problem if there was no “main debate.”  Or if poll respondents would wake up.

The current debate structure is a sad joke.  The Republican debates are bordering on unwatchable.  The Democratic debates this cycle are meaningless unless Bernie Sanders starts to confront Hillary Clinton directly, in-person.  And none of this will get better in the short term.


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