The second presidential debate just ended, and the internet is abuzz with post-debate spin and analysis. Unfortunately, the post-debate articles could just as easily have been written before the debate, with a few pesky details to be filled in later, because the actual debate was largely a foregone conclusion. It consisted of two candidates being asked a certain predictable set of questions from a limited set of topics. The candidates then focus on one particular word in the question, mentally cross-reference that word with a paragraph from their stump speech and deliver that paragraph, often ignoring the actual question. On every third question, they also invent a down-on-their luck person they met on the campaign trail who used said issue to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Thus, a very astute question on the scope of federal government (should it have a role in setting gas prices) turns into a discussion on clean coal, simply because the word “energy” was mentioned in the question. Or a potentially explosive discussion on interagency communication breakdown (as evidenced by requests for security funding for embassies) turns into a sparring over word-choice regarding terrorism. The candidates end up not so much debating as giving dueling mini-speeches–an unfortunate microcosm of our current political discourse where the two sides talk at each other rather than to each other.
In the midst of all of this, facts and figures which are often totally contradictory get bandied about with reckless abandon, making it so that drilling on federal lands can both increase and decrease over the same time period (depending on the metric and comparators used). It is a testament to the degraded quality of our collective political discourse that the most accurate statement out of either campaign on strategy was when Romney’s campaign stated they would not let their campaign be “run by a bunch of fact-checkers.” I believe that for better or for worse (for worse, in my opinion), they got that point exactly right. In politics, perception is reality, the rest is just facts. A bell once rung can be silenced, but never unrung. Thus, Republicans can fact-check Obama’s Libya comments all they want, and even if the President is proven completely wrong, it will at best only serve as feeble damage control for the GOP.
For too long have we let the candidates and the campaigns police themselves for truth and veracity. They have obviously proven inept or unwilling to do so. It is time for us to step in and (gasp!) hold our candidates responsible for their statements in real time. I would propose that the easiest and most universal venue for doing so is the Commission on Presidential Debates. The debates currently start with a coin toss– a simple and mostly fair method to determine who goes first and one shared with many professional sports. Perhaps we can borrow other rules from pro-sports to make the debate more meaningful, useful, and truthful.
For the sake of human nature, please take a moment to imagine President Obama in a football helmet dousing himself with gatorade, then flexing and screaming. Got it? Good. Now that you’ve got it out of your system, let’s get serious.
Here are some specific suggestions:
1) Challenge flags. Each candidate can choose three opportunities in the debate to interrupt his opponent for a real time fact check by an unbiased panel of fact checkers. If the challenger loses the first two, however, the third is rescinded. This introduces an impetus for truth as well as an eye for strategy (something I’d like our commander in chief to have)
2) Play clock. The great lesson of Watergate was that the President is not above the law. Why, then, should they be above the rules? If a candidate is given two minutes to answer, they should be held to that rule. The mic for both candidate should be cut immediately after their allotted time for speaking is over. A president should be able to handle pressure calmly, prioritize quickly, and communicate effectively and succinctly. This handles all of those attributes.
3) Time outs. The executive branch of government is more than just a person. It is an entire team of individuals charged with keeping the legislature and judiciary in check. For every major decision, we expect the president to confer with his chief advisors. And yet, during the debates a candidate is all alone. Between topics, would it be so bad for each candidate to choose to huddle with his advisors to discuss general strategy and pertinent points to make/avoid, etc? In the end, the candidate on the stage would maintain final control over each decision, just as we expect a governing president to.
4) The Blitz. President Obama effectively criticized Senator McCain in 2008 for suspending his campaign to solve the economic crisis by claiming a president “should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time”. There is no point in the debate where a candidate’s mettle is truly tested. No truly stressful point in a debate where a president must perform under unexpected pressure. This could come in any of a myriad of forms, each with its own challenges. Would the candidate be forced to speak over loud microphone feedback? With a time-clock that is inexplicably draining in double-time? Answer two disparate questions at once, or be posed with a second question halfway through answering the first? Nobody could foresee some of the historical events of the past decade. It would be imminently reasonable to expect a president to deal with unforeseen challenges.
I know this analogy is prone to lampooning. But these approaches are used in professional sports simply because they work in an enterprise where fairness and accountability are the keystones of the entire business model. Shouldn’t we expect at least as much from our presidential candidates?
(Hat tip to my friend Ali Yusufaly for the general inspiration for this post.)