The Great Debate

Reader ideas for improving the presidential debates.

GOP candidates at their lecterns

Last week, I asked how readers would take the doldrums out of the presidential debates. It turns out that you are just as bored and frustrated with their sad state as I am and have a slew of great ideas for improvement (plus some exciting lifestyle tips and prescription drug offers). No one much took up my Fred Friendly suggestion, but here are some ideas I thought would best push the candidates to reveal their intellectual depth, sense of imagination, and ability to think on their feet.

Just thefacts: How about fact-checking for questionable assertions? And penalties for candidates who gave evasive or meaningless answers about the loveliness of America and all her freedom-loving people? Here’s how such a debate could work: In a first round, journalists would question candidates. Those answers would then be fact-checked by a panel. During the fact-checking, candidates would be allowed to say whatever they wanted in a second round. (This free gab period would be a sweetener that might entice them to participate.) In the third round, the fact-checking panel would make candidates defend their distortions, ask for clarifications, or point out which questions the candidates had ducked altogether. If the fact-checkers couldn’t work that fast, perhaps there would be a second debate devoted to the answers offered in the first.

Give the audience control: Various readers suggested American Idol- or Survivor-type methods for voting candidates off the stage if their answers were no good. One reader wanted the audience to control the candidates’ microphones, cutting them off when they got too windy. Another suggested that the participants be privy to their evolving audience scores as the debate progressed. That way, they might rescue themselves from being sent down the tubes. Another option would be to allow the audience or a panel of judges to rank the performances afterward in categories like consistency, honesty, and truthfulness, or take away points for evasion, deception, or excessive flop sweat.

Off the network: No one stood up for the network moderators. Lots of people suggested Jon Stewart would make a good host. Others wanted to move the debates to PBS or C-Span, or revive the sponsorship of the League of Women Voters to strip away commercial self-promotion. Some suggested bringing in a panel of academics to fashion the questions. That’s got a downside, though: It would inevitably launch a spiraling meta debate among academics about which questions to choose and we’d then have to host a debate about that.

Let the candidates question eachother: This would lead to entertaining sparring as each candidate tried to uncover his or her opponents’ weaknesses. Since a president should know which questions to ask, we would learn something from the questioning as well. To minimize the trick questions, the candidates could be forced to ask and answer questions on just a single topic. They might still start off with a few zingers, but ultimately would have to show some depth of understanding about the issue and some ability to listen to the answers being given by their opponents. Grandstanding could also be limited by not letting candidates know beforehand the topic or which opponent they’d question. Perhaps there could be a kind of reverse “Secret Santa” approach, with candidates preparing questions without knowing which of their opponents would get them.

Shrink thepool: No one likes the idea of a stage with six or eight or 10 candidates. Some readers wanted to bounce the likes of Mike Gravel and Ron Paul by limiting the debates to only the front-runners. Others suggested allowing an even wider field, but running the debate version of a tennis round-robin. Less popular or well-funded candidates would debate their fellow  second- and third-tier rivals. The winning long-shot candidate—determined by audience vote—could work his or her way up to play with the big kids. Candidates could suffer early losses and still battle their way back up. Others suggested a bracket system, with one-on-one contests and winners advancing to subsequent rounds.

Godeep: Almost all readers wanted to give candidates more time for their answers, and to limit each debate to a single issue in order to force candidates beyond their talking points. Some suggested shrinking debates into talk-show-like conversations, with three candidates at a time chatting about a single issue and a moderator playing referee. All the discussions would be posted on the Web. Lots of people wanted to mix it up and have Republicans and Democrats start debating before their party nominations.

Essayquestions: On the theory that good writing is the product of clear thinking, one reader suggested making the debates like college exams or other scholastic competitions. Candidates would get a question minutes before the debate and then have 45 minutes to write an answer. They would then have to read their response out loud. Reader James Stokes suggests candidate essays, written before the debate, to prompt reader-submitted questioning or provide a starting-off point for moderators. I’d add this wrinkle: Let readers judge the essays on honesty, depth, wit, and any other criteria we wanted. The candidates who scored highest would get the most amount of airtime, or extra time for rebuttal, or some other plum to encourage decent and thoughtful responses rather than boilerplate.

Buzzers, boxes, and instantmessages: A lot of readers seemed to think the candidates cribbed off of one another. They wanted to put all of them in soundproof booths and make them answer the same question. Since they couldn’t hear the others, readers assumed, their answers might be more honest. Several readers wanted to give candidates buzzers to either signal their opponents’ falsehoods or interrupt with their own positions. My favorite gimmick: candidate-to-candidate instant messaging:

Str8tlk: Romney is so flip-flopping
SaintSam: I know! He was like pro-choice five minutes ago.
Str8tlk: J LOL! Rudy’s going to say he’d name Jesus to the Supreme Court
SaintSam: That was going to be my answer!