Monday, October 22, 2012

Legitimizing the Modern Presidential Debate

Modern debates have become akin to campaign stump speeches with the sole purpose of stating talking points to ensure seal-clapping approval from one’s base while staying board as possible to avoid direct criticism from opponents. Unfortunately the revive the debates of Douglas-Lincoln is not feasible any longer because candidates no longer have the intelligence to express ideas in such a detailed manner or the guts to expose themselves and their ideas in bare-naked specifics. Therefore, to lament days long gone is a needless exercise which wastes time. However, simply because society cannot return to the past does not mean it must settle for the sham confrontational pageantry and typical hollow words associated with modern debates.

A better debate format would consist of a broad overarching topic (economics, environment, foreign policy, education, energy, etc.) with four separate and unique questions pertaining to that topic. The moderator would write the questions prior to the debate. The goal of debate is to convince others of the superiority of a certain position and the failures of other contrasting positions. Superiority of a given position over others can only be genuinely adjudicated by understanding the differences between those positions and how those differences would theoretically interact with the boundary conditions and variables presented by society in reality. This debate format would require sufficient time to explain these differences.

Candidates would have a total talk time of fifteen minutes for each question with a two-minute utilization minimum during each speaking session with no ceiling. Basically a candidate could talk for fifteen minutes straight, but would have to talk for at least two minutes. When a candidate has less than two minutes of talk time remaining he/she must use at least 25% of the available time. To ensure efficiency and accuracy offline electronic screens will be available on the podiums of each candidate that will track the question and how much time each candidate has remaining. These devices would behave like electronic chess clocks where after a candidate stopped speaking he/she would push a button that would stop the current clock and start his/her opponent’s clock.

The question of whether or not the candidates should be informed of the questions before the debate is an interesting one. Initially it stands to reason that making the questions available is appropriate. Most problems faced by a President are long-term that have been developing over years rather than short-term that materialize in a given moment. With this point and the point of debate itself in mind regarding solutions, choosing a President is not about determining who can think quickest on one’s feet and how much information can be memorized, but to discuss hypotheses and identify the best ideas to solve a particular problem for foreign and domestically. Finally advanced knowledge of the questions will increase the probability that candidates have greater detail in their answers making it easier to differentiate between the core ideas associated in those answers.

However, there is one major concern with letting the candidates know the questions beforehand, the issue of authenticity. With foreknowledge of the questions there is a higher probability that candidates simply regurgitate talking points and stump speeches. Basically there is less honesty in the answers because those answers are too polished, or for lack of a better word too inoffensive. In the heat of the moment when put on the spot there is higher likelihood of a candidate revealing his/her biases. This bias may reveal contradictions between stated ideas during the debate and the personal characteristics and beliefs of the candidate. Fortunately the timing format limits the efficacy of such a strategy because to talk in such board terms will not impress viewers, especially if other candidates demand and demonstrate greater details in their answers.

A secondary more minor problem is that while stated above that most problems are long-term, there are some instances where quick decision-making is required and it is important for voters to see how candidates go through a thought process to solve new and immediate problems. Therefore, it seems appropriate that the moderator should reveal three of the four questions to the candidates at least one week prior to the debate and the fourth question should be concealed until it is asked during the debate.

One of the critical elements of a debate is candidate interaction. Debates in which candidates are not allowed to pose questions to other candidates do not accomplish the intended purpose of a debate because idea exchange and challenged validity are limited. Candidates should be able to 'poke' holes in the answer of another candidate to test the validity and effectiveness of a given idea or solution. Based on the time restrictions placing a cap on the number of questions a candidate can ask seems appropriate. Initially allowing six total questions over the entire debate with no more than two per question is a good place to start. While it may be difficult to impose a limit on question asking, both time limits and the need to reduce the probability that one candidate obfuscates flaws in his/her answer(s) by reducing talk time through forcing the opponent(s) to answer numerous questions supercede any restriction concerns.

Candidates would be allowed the create written documents prior to the debate (notes) to use in the debate, but all electronic devices would be disallowed for concern about unethical behavior such as communicating with another party or performing research while other candidates are speaking. Candidate order would be determined by a coin flip after the moderator determines the order of the questions with the winner either selecting to answer questions 1 and 3 first or questions 2 and 4 first.

Finally another element of this debate format could include the moderator at the conclusion of the fourth question fact checking a single statement made by each candidate and asking candidates to clarify their statements within three minutes using the accurate information. Reasonably there should be little reason to reject such an option, but there may be concern that numerous media outlets may detract from the overall debate by focusing on moderator bias instead. However, despite this minor concern moderator fact checking at the conclusion of the debate with rebuttal opportunity is appropriate.

The way debates are currently conducted in modern society, evading legitimate discovery of meaningful solutions for so many existing and new problems in the global environment, is shameful and should not be tolerated. The above debate design is one way to ensuring that voters better understand how candidates would manage a large number of problems in numerous different fields. Clarification of these ideas is important for determining viable solutions as well as creating a more defined character regarding what the United States wants to be as a country instead of this uncertain ‘all political parties are the same, everyone is equal unless they aren’t, melting pot, but not really, government out of my life unless I need its help’ type of contradictory mantra that a large number of voters seem to possess. Overall the public needs to demonstrate that they realize debates are not pageants where the winners are those who are more confident, good-looking and empathetic, but intellectual competitions where the winners are those who present the best ideas for solving a given problem in the context of reality. If that is not the case then why continue to waste time with a debate at all and simply give each candidate 20-30 minutes of national television time to stump.

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