How To Fix America’s Presidential Debates
June 16, 2016
By Robert Rosenkranz
Finally, America may have a shot at real presidential debates — debates that require the candidates to discuss substantive issues with depth and nuance, to marshal relevant facts, to respond to challenges, and to demonstrate their ability to transcend memorized sound bites and actually think on their feet. The current format is not real debate: it’s reality television and, we can all agree, it’s absurd.
But things can change if enough voters petition Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to Fix America’s Debates. Both candidates have given fair notice of how they will respond to the current format. For Hillary Clinton, debating Donald Trump would be a “singular moment in American history, because I think I’ll have the chance to make clear why I believe why he is not qualified and temperamentally unfit to be president.”
Similarly, one New York Times headline read: “Little Is Off Limits as Donald Trump Plans Attacks on Hillary Clinton’s Character.” In the article, Trump says, “You really have to get people to look hard at her character, and to get women to ask themselves if Hillary is truly sincere and authentic.”
What is a REAL presidential debate, you ask? It’s a legitimate question, because there hasn’t been one in over 40 years. When we held real debates in the 1960s, 58 percent of the voting-age population tuned in. Today, less than 25 percent will watch. There’s a reason for that.
A debate is not meant to be an exchange of scripted remarks, rehearsed rebuttals or an endless series of character attacks. The pointless insults and repetitive talking points should be left for campaign ads, where they belong. For voters to make an informed decision, we need to hear our candidates delve into the issues in a meaningful way.
That’s the reason Intelligence Squared U.S. has launched a Change.org petition calling for presidential debate reform. For the 2016 general election, the candidates and the nonprofit that oversees the format, the Commission on Presidential Debates, ought to adopt Oxford-style debate, a proven format that would better demonstrate the candidates’ platforms and ideas.
Here’s how it would work: sharply framed resolutions — for instance, “Give Undocumented Immigrants A Path To Citizenship” or “The United States Intervenes Abroad Too Often” — are devised for one side to support and the other to oppose.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would each start with an opening statement delivered without interruption. Then, the candidates address and rebut the best arguments their opponent has made. The moderator’s role is simple, but vital: to ensure that the candidates actually debate each other—that they respect the process, respond to points made, refute or concede as necessary, and honor time limits. The debate would end with two-minute closing arguments, a final opportunity to sway the audience.
No “gotcha” questions. No soundbites. No repetitive remarks. Intelligence Squared U.S. has proven that it works, having presented more than 120 Oxford-style debates on topics that would befit our upcoming election: “Eliminate Corporate Subsidies.” “Break Up The Big Banks.” “America Should Be The World’s Policeman.” “Obamacare Is Beyond Repair.” “The Constitutional Right to Bear Arms Has Outlived Its Usefulness.”
If we don’t change the format, voters will glean almost nothing that can’t be gathered from campaign ads. American voters deserve better than this circuitous vitriol. We can raise the level of public discourse in this election.
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