How to Make Presidential Debates Better
If the 2012 campaign is an endurance race, we're now in the home stretch just before the finish line. After the first two presidential face-offs, nobody is doubting the debates' importance.
But let's go deeper for a moment. Why do we have them at all? I'm not saying we shouldn't -- after all, as Northeastern University's Alan Schroeder puts it, "debates retain the power to generate a collective national experience, one built not around athletic competition but around the future of the country." But, as they're presently constituted, what exactly are the debates teaching us about the candidates? Are they set up to give an accurate idea of what a candidate might be like as a president? What skills are they really testing? Can we come up with something better?
After the first presidential debate in Denver, there was online chatter about whether Romney had covertly brought some notes to his podium. The mystery object turned out to be just a handkerchief. But the bigger mystery is: Why can't candidates bring notes of any kind? When is a sitting president ever going to be faced with a situation in which he's going to need to make an important decision without availing himself of any outside information? Information is good -- indeed, very few crises in our history have come about because a president wanted to consider too much outside information.
So why not let candidates have notes or charts or slideshows -- or any visuals they want? What exactly is being tested by not letting them have notes? Memorization and improv skills? Those are perfectly good talents to have, but I'm not sure they have much to do with being a great president.
"Why do we assume that presidential debates should be broadcast on and organized around television, the most vacuous medium in American life?" writes Conor Friedersdorf. He calls for "text-based debates," in which opposing candidates would be sat in different rooms, given computers and engage in something like an IM chat. "I think text would easily prove more substantive than broadcast," he writes. "There'd be a nice transcript at the end that voters could consult. The political press wouldn't waste time talking about body language, facial expressions, dress or other nonsense that is covered as if it's important because it's covered as if it's important."
It's an interesting idea. It lessens the chance that something like the way a presidential candidate laughs or how much he (or, someday, she) sweats will be a factor in the election, but let's take it a step further -- what about at least one debate that is structured to resemble the decision-making process a president would actually go through in office? For starters, they could have access to all the information they want. It's fun to see how a candidate responds to a zinger, but it'd be much more instructive to see how a candidate goes about seeking information that he doesn't know. So give them web access. And give them a phone -- to borrow from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", we could have a "Phone an Adviser" option. Or we could have candidates bring their advisers on stage with them. The moderator could throw out a difficult hypothetical; the candidates would consult their respective advisers and come back with an answer. That is, after all, how the presidency actually works.
Another idea: have a break midway through the debate -- and use the halftime not for marching bands and Gatorade but for a round of fact-checking. Thanks to new media, we are awash in debate fact-checking -- much of it in real time. But almost none of it finds its way into the actual debate. During the first presidential debate, there were 10 million tweets. During the VP debate, there were 4 million. Politifact and Factcheck.org both live-tweet fact-checks, as do The New York Times and Washington Post.
So why can't all this useful information be made even more useful by being inserted into the debate itself? During the halftime break, the debate moderator could consult the same Twitter fact-checking that millions of viewers at home are reading and, when the debate resumes, come back at the candidates with it.
And then we could see the candidates dance, each paired with a professional dancer and performing a very challenging tango with the truth. OK, I'm kidding about this last part (mostly!), but we should be open to any and all ideas that can help make modern debates better by testing the skills a president will actually use once in office.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2012 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.