Substance v. Style: Is There a Better Way to Debate?

 

Is there a better way to have a political debate? After watching the first part of last night’s debate on Fox, then switching off the video to listen along with Ricochet’s chat feed, I was struck by its disorderliness.

The interviewer-driven Q&A style is confusing. Granted, the debate had to involve ten candidates, and it was only fair that each was given time to make their case. But the haphazard format made it nearly impossible for me to get a good read on any of them. With a format like this — and this has been true ever since Nixon and Kennedy had at it — wit and charm trump substance. For example, although I was impressed with Rubio, I’m still not sure what he proposes to do to spark small business development.

There’s an alternative, one that’s been around since the Greeks. The candidates could debate each other directly, with the media in the background. One way would be to follow the modified rules of inter-collegiate policy debate. Suppose each candidate had 15 minutes to state his or her case. Each then had 10 minutes to cross-examine his or her opponent. The media then had ten minutes to ask questions; each candidate then had five minutes for rebuttal and three for surrebuttal. The end.

What are the advantages (as collegiate debaters might say) to this format?

First, it would require the candidates to clash, to use the formal term. Cross-examination assures a robust argument because the candidate must prepare not only advance to his own position, but to defend it against his opponent’s best arguments. Eloquence would be redefined: There would be less “Boy, he sounded good,” and more “Goodness, she knows what she’s talking about.”

Second, the candidates would have to master brevity. For most politicians, a quarter of an hour isn’t much time for a major speech. But a candidate who failed to get his message across in 15 minutes would reveal he hadn’t done enough research to understand the issue, or never thought the matter through. It’s vital that a president to do this work before taking office; he or she won’t have time afterward. It’s crucial for the electorate to learn enough from a debate to judge whether the man or woman it might put in the White House really knows what he or she would do, why, and whether the country would benefit from it.

Third, this would discipline the media. If three reporters participate, each would have only slightly more than three minutes to ask questions. They would be unable to derail the debate by injecting themselves into it. (See Candy Crowley, if you must.) They would have fewer opportunities to express their own ideology or attempt to discredit a candidate. They would have to prepare just as carefully as the politicians and choose questions that get to the point.

The focus would be on the candidates. It would be more akin to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, among the best studies in rhetoric and political argumentation in American history. Lincoln and Douglas had no choice but to prepare, be concise, and exhibit the character we should expect from our leaders. It could elevate political discourse to a far higher level than we could ever obtain with the contemporary atomistic debate format.

What are the disadvantages, as as collegiate debaters might say? Could it work? If not, what might work better?

There are 53 comments.

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  1. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    This is where the new media should step in. Skype or gotomeeting dot com should host a debate. They needn’t have the time constraints and can explore new ideas. The video might be poorer but the content higher.

    • #1
  2. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    with 17 candidates that would be one long long format. I agree, something different was needed for this deep pool of candidates.

    I’m not sure tonight was enough for some of them to decide to drop out, but I hope so.

    Instead of a spot light, we get a fuzzy diffuser.

    • #2
  3. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    I was still editing. Geesh, did I press the wrong button. Look you guys, don’t bug me until I get this right(-:

    • #3
  4. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Brevity is the soul of wit, but this debate format is the Twitter version.

    It’s tricky because there are some back-and-forth exchanges we need, but we don’t really need everyone head-to-head.  The Christie-Paul exchange was fun.  I wanted to see Trump vs. Perry and Graham vs. Paul.  More substantively, I wanted a debate on the Medicaid question.  They asked Kasich, but we needed Kasich vs. Walker or Jindal on the issue.

    • #4
  5. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Mike Rapkoch: elevate political discourse to a much higher level than is possible with the current atomistic approach we see today.

    hehehe, but the general audience is still the same, and they like Vines, Gif’s and Tweets. :(

    just saw an offensive looping gif of Santorum, and the liberal hate is simmering on Facebook.

    Too many people want the wrestling style showmanship, and are not interested in the substance.

    Not true on Rico, but out in the mixed population…oi vey.

    • #5
  6. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    This wouldn’t have worked for tonights debate. Might not work for any of the primary debates. But, as you all know, I’m a forwarding looking guy. I’d love to see this in the general. It would be far more interesting than the sound bite stuff we get now.

    • #6
  7. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Leigh:Brevity is the soul of wit, but this debate format is the Twitter version.

    It’s tricky because there are some back-and-forth exchanges we need, but we don’t really need everyone head-to-head. The Christie-Paul exchange was fun. I wanted to see Trump vs. Perry and Graham vs. Paul. More substantively, I wanted a debate on the Medicaid question. They asked Kasich, but we needed Kasich vs. Walker or Jindal on the issue.

    Brevity is the soul of twit.

    • #7
  8. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Mike Rapkoch:I was still editing. Geesh, did I press the wrong button. Look you guys, don’t bug me until I get this right(-:

    Your post is great, and your suggestion is great.

    • #8
  9. Herbert Woodbery Inactive
    Herbert Woodbery
    @Herbert

    How do you get to ricochet chat feed on a iPad?

    • #9
  10. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Herbert Woodbery:How do you get to ricochet chat feed on a iPad?

    I’ll ask Max or Yeti to post on this. It’s above my pay grade.

    • #10
  11. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Mike Rapkoch: I’d love to see this in the general.

    Debates in the general, this format. each debate focused on 2-3 specific topics. Multiple debates over time to cover all the concerns.

    The candidates don’t even have to be in the same place. They can Skype it in from the field.

    All the scripting and staging needs to stop.

    • #11
  12. Herbert Woodbery Inactive
    Herbert Woodbery
    @Herbert

    For a couple days I had a chat tag on right hand side of screen, it is no longer there.

    • #12
  13. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Mike Rapkoch:

    Herbert Woodbery:How do you get to ricochet chat feed on a iPad?

    I’ll ask Max or Yeti to post on this. It’s above my pay grade.

    I don’t have a tablet, but this is the address, once you are logged in to the site. You can save it as a favorite.

    http://ricochet.com/live-chat/

    • #13
  14. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Herbert Woodbery:For a couple days I had a chat tag on right hand side of screen, it is no longer there.

    Herbert, they moved it to the main menu bar, right next to main feed, member feed, etc. It says Chat. :)

    • #14
  15. Herbert Woodbery Inactive
    Herbert Woodbery
    @Herbert

    Jules PA:

    Herbert Woodbery:For a couple days I had a chat tag on right hand side of screen, it is no longer there.

    Herbert, they moved it to the main menu bar, right next to main feed, member feed, etc. It says Chat. :)

    It’s not on my menu bar, but your link did work, thanks…

    • #15
  16. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    In Montana’s 1992 gubernatorial race, Marc Racicot (R) and Dorothy Bradley (D) traveled all over the state debating one another. It was great. Just about every voter had at least one opportunity to see them in action. They were both impressive. Marc won, I’m glad to say, but Bradley ran one heck of a campaign. I think the debates really forced both of them to hone their positions. Marc was a bit of a disappointment as Gov, but Bradley would have been a disaster.

    • #16
  17. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Has there ever been a debate in a sports arena before?  The size and noise of the crowd was distracting.  There used to be a certain polite decorum expected at debates, now it feels more like an episode of Jerry Springer.

    • #17
  18. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Joseph Stanko: an episode of Jerry Springer.

    You’re right on that.

    • #18
  19. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    The longer the candidates talk the better it is to sort out who they are and what they want to do. The issues would all come out in a more measured manner, so in short I hope someone in a power pays attention to your post and the comments. I hope this post goes up front so one or more the the power folks can implement something better than we saw tonight. With that said, Fox was far better than what the typical production from the others.

    • #19
  20. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    I’d try one where there is something like a chess clock. Each candidate can speak until he runs out of time or cedes the floor to another.

    significant tweaking would be required if there are many candidates. If one candidate is attacked by several others, his allotted time may be insufficient to respond.

    • #20
  21. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    I debate should not be an interview. Candidates should be give a certain amount of time for each topic and then they can attack each others ideas. The moderator should just be keeping track of time.

    I’m pretty sure Lincoln and Douglas were never asked “Why do you say mean things to women?” If a talking head wants to ask that, then get a one one interview with the candidate, but that is not something the candidates should be debating about.

    • #21
  22. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Mike, very appreciative of this post, because this is exactly what’s bothering me.

    I was floored by Rubio, who seemed leagues above the others in preparedness, seriousness, and Presidential-ness. Rubio has “It.”

    But all I really know from my own reaction is that I have a crush on him. He’s telegenic, he’s quick, and he’s agile if he gets 30 seconds.

    I can’t make a decision as serious as, “Is Rubio ready to be a wartime president?” from anything I heard last night. Our next president will be one.

    I don’t want to cast my vote for someone because he makes my little heart go pitter-pat.

    • #22
  23. Belt Inactive
    Belt
    @Belt

    I favor that idea myself.  If I were in charge of the debate, I would have broken it up over two nights.  I would have split them up into two groups, randomly assigned so that we wouldn’t have to rely on the stupid and meaningless polls.  Seven candidates in the first group, and ten in the other.

    There would be two hats (or some other randomizer).  When the debate started, I would draw two names from the first hat and have them square off.  They would not know who they would be debating against until the segment started.  The other hat would contain a dozen or so topics to debate on, also randomly chosen.  (Education, ISIS, regulatory policy, etc.)

    The candidates would go to the podium and have ten minutes to make their case for their policy on that topic, and then have five minutes to rebut their opponent.  Half an hour for each pair, and you’re done.  Oh, and that first night, with an odd number of candidates?  Have a special mystery debater for the last round.  I’m thinking, say, Mark Steyn for the entertainment value, or a conservative policy wonk who can get deep in the weeds for intellectual heft, or a real wild card like a prominent leftist.

    This has two benefits.  First, it would give space for a more in-depth discussion of the issues.  Second, it would be grand theater that any TV producer would salivate over.

    • #23
  24. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    What useful information do you believe that this will give you about the candidates in the performance of their actual duties, in the context of the organization he/she will actually be running?

    • #24
  25. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Meh. Debates are not the only place we can get data on the candidates’ positions and policies. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to hear most of these folks drone on for more than a couple of minutes anyway. I only have one cat box to clean, and I gave that to one of Graham’s answers yesterday. If we want to hear them go off for 10-20 minutes we can watch campaign speeches. To watch them defend themselves just takes interviews with the (obviously) hostile media. I think we’re trying to make more of them than what they are. Carthago had good advice on how to approach these traveling side shows.

    • #25
  26. MBF Member
    MBF
    @MBF

    A great way to improve the debate would be to bar Megyn Kelly from going within 1000 yards of the stage. Trump was only the second biggest self promoting blusterer in the arena last night.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Mike Rapkoch: Substance v. Style: Is There a Better Way to Debate?

    It depends. For who’s benefit is the debate?

    If the purpose of the debate is to create a free exchange of ideas so that the participants can synthesize new knowledge on a topic, then sure. This type of debate, of course, cannot be televised or indeed have any sort of audience.

    If the purpose of the debate is for two sides of an issue to persuade the audience that their side is more correct than the other, then sure. Go watch an Oxford Union or Intelligence Squared debate.

    However, if the purpose of the debate is to showcase every candidate in an election, and/or hold every candidate to account for their performance, then I don’t see how one could improve on how election debates are currently set up. As soon as you put more than two competitors on the stage it becomes machiavellian theatre.

    Basically, it comes down to “what are elections about?”

    If you think elections are about selecting the best person for the job by rationally considering their ideas, policies, and genuine character, here are a couple of books you should read to disavow you of that opinion:

    • #27
  28. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    The problem with the technocratic right, is that they think marginally less sucky is the same as marginally more better.

    • #28
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Cont…/

    Personally, I only see one benefit from election debates: They help showcase how well the candidates will perform in legislative debates once elected.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply to US presidential elections, since the president of the US doesn’t participate in legislative debates once elected.

    It really only applies to Westminster-style governments, where the party leaders, once elected, have to be able to hold their own during Question Period.

    If a candidate cannot defend their party during an election debate, how will they be able to defend their government in the House of Commons?

    In short, election debates do nothing more than showcase the candidates’ ability to perform in debates. If the job being sought doesn’t actually involve any public debating, then there’s little point to having the candidates for that position debate each other during an election.

    For the office of president, a genuinely better strategy would be to have them compete for a week on Jeopardy, with categories such as the US constitution, world history, the structure of the executive level of US government, and the tax code.

    • #29
  30. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Misthiocracy: For the office of president, a genuinely better strategy would be to have them compete for a week on Jeopardy, with categories such as the US constitution, world history, the structure of the executive level of US government, and the tax code.

    That rewards the candidate with the best memory for detail.  That’s a plus, but like communication skills it’s not everything.

    Honestly, I think the best strategy is for voters — and the media who inform them — to genuinely do their research.  Read about them, listen to them, check their record, analyze their positions, evaluate their credibility.

    • #30
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