Making Debates Suck a Wee Bit Less

dem_debate01Not a pretty picture
(Courtesy of Business Insider)

There have been a lot of debates for the Democratic nomination for President, and I haven’t watched most of them, I admit. I personally find most debates painful, for any number of reasons.

I have watched the last few, however, and have noticed that the complaints about them haven’t really changed in the last, oh, 40 years or so. I’ve been watching them regularly since Mondale whomped Reagan’s butt in theirs in 1984 and still got torched in the election, and have listened ever since to The Best and Brightest analyze the results and continually puzzle over Why Debates are So Bad™. My favorite moment in this vein was when Cokie Roberts opined in 1996 that a town hall-style debate couldn’t possibly be of any value because of course only trained journalists (like her humble self) could be trusted to ask penetrating, sharp questions to get past politicians’ well-honed facades.

Like this week’s toughie, “What motto do you try to live by.” Yup, only a highly-trained journalist could come up with that one, ghost of Cokie!

I was thinking about this while reading Margaret Sullivan’s analysis of Wednesday’s debate and why it went so horribly wrong. Ms. Sullivan couldn’t come up with any suggestions as to how to improve things except for two somewhat-draconian ones: Give the moderators the ability to cut the participants’ mics, and sanctions if they don’t follow the rules.

With due respect to Ms. Sullivan, I have a few more.

First, let’s address Ms. Roberts head on and just say: Bullshit. The public immediately proved her wrong by asking Clinton and Dole some remarkably astute questions. There; I feel much better!

Now: So many of these debates get side-tracked by two things: The fact that the moderators are pompous, self-involved TV personalities, and that there are too damn many of them on the “moderating panel”.

So let’s get rid of famous TV news people as moderators right off. I don’t want them up there making the debates about themselves, because to a certain degree they always do. Chuck Todd is of course horrific (and he’s been on the panel more than once!), but Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory in South Carolina. And let’s face it: None of the moderators have done a job you’d write home about at all. I personally found Lester Holt almost unbearably pompous, but there has been plenty of that to go around.

moderatorsFive? Really? Why?

Who to sub in? Print or online reporters would be a good place to start, preferably those who don’t have high-profile columns. Not Tom Friedman or David Brooks, for the love of God, no. Rebecca Traister, say. Michelle Goldberg of The NY Times. Any of the dozens of reporters at local papers like the Houston Chronicle or the LA Times or any of the independents. Hell, I’d pay danger money to get Matt Taibbi up there on the panel. These are people who’d have more interest in substantive rather than gotcha questions.

I’d cut down on these “panels”, too. Two people, at most three. These four and five person panels are unwieldy, and you spend way too much time passing the mic back and forth from one moderator to another. I’m here to watch the candidates, not the moderators.

How about inviting former candidates to be moderators? You can bet they’d get some incisive questions in! People have been saying, “Boy, I sure wish Cory Booker/Kamala Harris/Julian Castro were still up there, they really added something!” Well, what’s stopping you, CBS/NBC/CNN/ABC/etc? Invite them to moderate! I’d love to see any of those three asking some pointed questions!

And what if you had Senator Harris paired with, god forbid, an ordinary citizen? Maybe an ordinary citizen who has brought a list of questions from other ordinary citizen? You can bet they wouldn’t have stupid-ass questions about a candidates “life motto”, FFS. They’ll have real-life questions about health care, abortion, guns, tax laws, and other things we all have to face every day that a Lester Holt hasn’t thought about in years. Especially if that citizen were a PoC, or GLBT, or (heaven forfend) a combination.

Fewer moderators mean more time for the candidates to talk, which leads to my next suggestion: Even my ADHD son noticed how short the answer periods are. 45 seconds? C’mon; that’s absurd. These are candidates for President, not contestants on Jeopardy. (Hey, I bet Alex Trebek would make a great moderator.) Let them talk for a couple or three minutes. So you get to ask fewer questions; big deal. You’re having so damn many debates, it’s not like they won’t have time at the next one. Fewer questions, more time, more details. Why is this considered a bad thing?

Sure, that’d put more pressure on the moderator(s) to keep control, but let’s start being adults about it; this “raising hands” thing is juvenile. Is this 5th grade in a 1948 grammar school? (Hey, let’s have my 3rd grade homeroom teacher be the moderator! She wouldn’t take any guff. She’d make Amy and Pete stay after and write “I will not interrupt my debate opponent” 500 times. In cursive.) No. It’s a Presidential debate. In the 21st Century. We have this thing called technology, see…

So along with giving people longer to speak, and the moderators some spine, put some attention lights on the podiums where the participants can see but not the audience. When they’ve been speaking long enough, the light starts flashing, warning them to wind up. If they don’t, the moderator cuts them off.

Similarly, instead of this idiotic hand-raising business, the moderator has a panel in front of her. When a debater wants to respond, they press a button indicating so. The moderator chooses the respondent and lets them respond. The moderator’s light panel is also out of view of the audience and cameras. We’re not here to embarrass either the candidates or the moderators; we’re here to watch the debate. All this is to just help it run smoothly.

sanders-biden-klobuchar-debate-ap-aa-200225_hpMain_16x9_992Ladies and gentlemen, these are, theoretically, adults

If you make these changes clear to the candidates at the beginning of the debate, and if you have moderators willing to enforce them, I think you’ll get much smoother, more informative debates. Sure, some of these people will push the boundaries; that’s what people do. But in the main, we’re dealing with adults (except Trump of course), and they’ll realize as long as these rules are applied fairly, they’ll have a better chance to speak. And without TV personalities running the show, they’ll have that better chance.

Anyway, that’s what I think. What about you?