Reimagining the 2016 Presidential Debates

There needs to be a new process for America’s biggest popularity contest. Republican presidential candidates have been taking the stage for debates at a rate of almost one per month this year. The “new” criteria consists of opening and closing statements as bookends to a two hour debate, including commercials. Candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have threatened to pull out if debates are scheduled for three hours without opening and closing statements. Trump and Carson are partially right. Sure, scripted statements can feel sterile and stale at the same time, but they are opportunities for the candidates to display sagacity over snark. In place of substantive exchanges of ideas and policy, Republican candidates issued a list of demands to television networks last month that included the following:

  • 30 Second opening statements,
  • Keep debate halls at 67 degrees,
  • Not televise empty podiums during breaks, and
  • Ban candidate-to-candidate questioning

The current presidential debate format does not encourage or incentivize a substantive command of policy issues.

In September’s Republican debate, the average candidate had roughly 12 minutes of speaking time. As the field narrows this time will inevitable increase, but this is simply not enough time to assess candidates. The 24-hour news cycle and social media outlets allow for cheap and shallow renderings of the candidates. We, as voters, consume and consume because the snippets and sound bites do not satisfy our desire to better understand the candidate and his or her policies. Even assessing a debate is couched in terms such as winning and losing. What if American presidential debates equated winning with a candidate’s public policy acumen and depth (not breadth) of accomplishments? What if tweets and sound bites were replaced with essays and orations

In what has come to be known as the Great Debates of 1858, a former upstart Congressman from Springfield, Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln ran for Senate against the incumbent Stephen Douglas. A series of debatesbetween the candidates that culminated in Lincoln’s loss spanned three months and consisted of the following rules: 1) one candidate speaks for 60 minutes, 2) the other candidate responds with 90 minutes, and 3) the first candidate responds for 30 minutes. That is a total of 10.5 hours of speaking for each Senate candidate. In fact, Lincoln’s appearance was not considered to be an asset of his. He used the debate format to his advantage though and had entire transcripts of the debates printed and distributed as advertisements for his campaign.

I am guilty as the next American when it comes to judging someone based on how “presidential” they look. However, optics are not everything. Joseph Williams of U.S. News and World Report observes,

“Critics say the televised, speed chess-meets-Mortal Kombat competitions between politicians who want to lead the free world too often turn on stumbles, errors and style over substance. Supporters insist on their value, but want reforms, now more than ever.”

Fortunately, there are some imaginative suggestions on debate reform. The New York Times captured some of these in a recent conversation on debates. Some of the ideas include:

  • Provide a more intimate setting
  • Focus on urban issues
  • Format as a TV-mini series
  • Deliver real-time fact checking
  • Place universities at the center of debates

While these are certainly meaningful steps toward positive change, they are largely cosmetic. Currently, there are 11 scheduled primary debates between now and March 2016; seven Republican and four Democratic. This gives an opportunity for much talk but probably not much debate. It makes me wonder if today’s presidential candidates could sustain the lengthy discourse needed for today’s complex issues. And, if so, would the electorate even bother to listen?

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay. Photo courtesy of Peter Stevens.