Let’s be blunt. The format of the Presidential debates, whether in the primary or the general election seasons, is boring, lacking in quality content, and generally just painful to watch. These problems are caused by two major factors: The ineptitude of the American media establishment, and the lack of attention paid by the American electorate.
There are obviously other problems with the system, but those two causes, together, are the root of the problem.
The media take it upon themselves to make or break candidates. They believe, quite wrongly, that they are the arbiters of American politics. They do have a job to do, of course, but it isn’t what they think it is. It is the media’s job to present all the facts about the various candidates. They are supposed to look into each candidate’s background and history and present an accurate account of who and what each candidate is. This is a job the media abandoned long ago in favor of thinking themselves king makers.
The media still research candidates, but they pick and choose what information to release. They sift through pages and pages of documents centering on candidates they collectively hate (Sarah Palin, anyone?), but choose to gloss over and ignore glaring problems with candidates they adore (Barack Obama). This is where the second portion of the root problem comes in.
The American public simply doesn’t give a damn. A large swath of the American electorate vote for candidates based on press coverage, good looks, or for a chance to make history. These voters don’t vote for candidates based on credentials and convictions. This explains why someone could vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and then swing around and vote for Barack Obama 24 years later. These voters don’t have values. They vote for a candidate based on that candidate’s popularity or on what that candidate promises to give them.
All of this leads to Presidential Debates that never actually address real issues. The questions asked by the media are often irrelevant, softballs for candidates they like, or purposely loaded to cause a candidate issues no matter how he or she answers the question for candidates they wish to destroy.
The media also can determine which candidates get the most camera time and which ones get ignored. That shouldn’t be up to them.
There was one “debate” during the 2008 season that I found intriguing and refreshing: The Rick Warren Debate. In this format, each candidate was asked identical questions and each candidate could not hear his opponent’s answers. This debate gave a clearer insight into the positions of John McCain and Barack Obama than any other.
I would support having each debate conducted in such a format, but I would take it one step further by eliminating the audience as well since those audiences do not really represent every day American voters. They are “invited guests” of the various candidates and as such, biased. The job of the person asking the question should them be to make sure the candidate actually answers the question and follow up as necessary.
Then, after that question and answer period, the candidates will be brought together, given a topic and turned loose on it. The proctor will control the time each candidate speaks, but that’s it. Every candidate will have equal time with each topic to give their position and debate each other.
Of course the media wouldn’t allow for changes such as these. They would cause debates to be boring and actually cause more Americans to tune out. At least, that’s how the argument goes. Perhaps the opposite would be true. If Americans started seeing questions that actually mean something, politicians that actually answer questions instead of dodge them, candidates actually turned loose to discuss topics amongst themselves, and all candidates treated equally, interest in those debates might actually increase.
It’s nice to dream sometimes. Too bad that’s all it actually is.