Stanford Progressive

Constructing a Meaningful Debate

By Lewis Marshall, published September, 2011

The eight Republican candidates, caricatures by "DonkeyHotey," via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been watching the Republican primary debates for the last few weeks. I love watching them. Debate season is football season for me. Every week or two there’s a new game to watch, to cheer, and boo, there are new anecdotes to bore my friends with. I love it.

At the same time, watching the debates makes me dispair for the future of my country. To continue the sport analogy, it’s as if ESPN was broadcasting little legue teams competing for the World Cup. It’s horrible. Its a bloodbath of logic, fact, and moral value.

I don’t think that my disgust with the Republican primary debates is partisan. Certainly, I’m nobody’s conservative, and I find the answers from the candidates particularly obnoxious. But let us not forget the 2008 Democratic primary, when George Stephanopoulos asked Obama such probing questions as “Does Reverend Wright love America as much as you do?” [1] My problem with the debates is that they reward dishonesty, avoidance, and manipulation. I despair because talking points and cheap gotcha’s have replaced substantive thought about what kind of leadership we want for our nation’s future.

I don’t think I’m alone with the sentiment that our political system is not working for us. Polling shows high dissatisfaction about the state and direction of the USA, and its ruling elite. Even the most establishment journalists see the stagnation of our political culture. David Brooks wrote, “Covering this upcoming election is like covering a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change.”[2]

Part of this is dissatisfaction with the two-party system, surely. But I our debates should be a time to introduce new ideas, to escape our moribund status quo. Instead, the debates often serve to enforce orthodoxy, giving vapid clones an boost over original thinkers. If we want to improve our political culture, we should change the way we run presidential debates.

1. Deep, Single-topic debates.
There are 17 Republican primary debates scheduled between May 5, 2011, and March 5, 2012. How many of these are going to cover the same rhetorical territory? How many times will a moderator ask who wants to build a border fence, or who thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme? [3] Now, more important. How much time will they spend on follow-up questions? Here’s an exchange I think is representative and illustrative.

BAIER:  Mr. Cain — Mr. Cain, we — we know you have a four-point economic plan.  But one specific thing, what one specific thing would President Cain do first to restart the economic engine?  And, again, with the caveat:  That one thing would have to get through a divided Congress.

CAIN:  Make the tax rates permanent.  That’s one of — of the four-point plans, because the business sector is the economic engine.  You have the group that’s talking about spending.  You have the group that’s talking about cutting.  I represent growth.  And it starts with the business sector putting fuel in the engine.

In addition to that one thing that you asked me to identify, we must have a maximum tax rate for corporations and individuals of 25 percent, take the capital gains tax rate to zero, take the tax on repatriated profits to zero, make them permanent, and — and then certainty back into this economy.  And I believe we can turn it around.  And one other thing.  We don’t have an option to wait longer than 90 days.  It is imperative that we get this economy going in 90 days with the next president of the United States of America.

BAIER:  Governor Huntsman [...]

Herman Cain outlined enormous tax cuts. By my estimate, just removing the capital gains tax would cost about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. [4] To put that in perspective, the congressional super committee has been charged with reducing the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade, with some calls for a $4 trillion reduction. Herman Cain never had to answer a follow-up question about how much his plan would reduce revenue, and what parts of the federal budget he would cut to pay for it. Instead, the moderator just moved to Huntsman.

The public would be much better served by a series of single-topic debates with deep follow-up questions. Right now, the candidates can just recite a stock answer and move on, without being held accountable for the likely consequences of their ideas. Single-topic debates could force candidates to advocate coherent policy visions, rather than sound bites.

2. Lower barriers to entry.
At the end of the primary process, the Republican nominee will probably be someone very mainstream, someone who agrees with the party’s base on most issues. Most early predictions point to Mitt Romney. Romney is not known for his deep convictions or stirring speeches, but he’s able to speak competently to the majority of Republicans without ruffling anyone’s feathers. Most of the candidates that have been in the debates are trying to emulate his positioning. Who’s not running on low taxes, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and reduction in federal regulations? Since everyone has the same basic position, the debates have been less about contrasting ideas of government, and more about purity tests. Can Mitt Romney be trusted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, since he passed something similar in Massachusetts? Can Rick Perry be trusted with executive power, since he issued an executive order on vaccinations while he was in Texas? Was Ron Paul or Rick Perry a bigger fan of Ronald Reagan?

To have a real debate on the issues you need an opposition, and that opposition exists. There are heterodox candidates who want to debate. The only heterodox candidate who’s been allowed stage is Ron Paul. I’m glad Paul is there, but I want to see debates with Gary Johnson, who’s running on legalizing marijuana and ending the wars. I want to see debates with Fred Karger, the first openly gay presidential candidate. I want to see debates with Buddy Romer, who’s running to get money out of politics.

The debate organizers exercise ridged control over who gets to participate in the debates. The inter-party debates are controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is headed by Democratic and Republican Party officials. This group has made it nearly impossible for third parties to be part of the debates by limiting participation to candidates polling at 15%. The intra-party debates are controlled by news organizations who are more than willing to strictly enforce entrance requirements. The public would be better served by more independent debate organizers and lower barriers for debate participation.

3. More power to moderators.
The moderator of a debate is a proxy for the public. They ask questions on behalf of citizens, the same citizens to whom politicians are accountable in a democratic system. Disrespect to moderators is to the idea of public accountability.

In today’s debates, there’s no penalty for disrespecting the moderator. Candidates regularly refuse to answer questions they don’t like, so much that it’s described as a laudable skill. Stunningly, Newt Gingrich blatantly attacked the media for trying to “get the Republicans to fight each other, to protect Barack Obama.” (Apparently Newt was never informed that he was in a debate.)

Disrespect toward moderators undermines candidate accountability, and it undermines the premise of a structured debate. It is unacceptable. The moderators should have some power to censure debaters who refused to comply with time limits or to answer questions. If need be, I want them to cut microphones.

4. Fact checkers.
With more power for moderators should come more responsibility. In particular, moderators (and their teams) should be responsible bringing to light any outright lies told by the candidates. Already, PolitiFact fact-checks debates, and does so within hours. They rated as lies, among other things, Rick Perry’s criticism of the stimulus, and Michelle Bachmann’s claim that Obama stole money from Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act. I’m glad that they’re fact checking. But what good does it do if a million people watch a debate and 10 thousand see fact checking the next day? What good does it do if the candidates are never accused of lying on television, and never have to answer these charges?

Moderators should have background teams fact checking candidate statements during the debate, and they should revisit inaccurate claims. If there’s no price to pay for lying to the public, why shouldn’t the candidates keep lying?

I saw a friend I’ve known since high school this week. We participated in Lincoln-Douglas debate together, and it had a profound effect on our lives. He grew up in a very religious household.  Debate forced him to question, and ultimately tear down, the ideology he had grown up with. I grew up in a household with neither religious nor political ideology, and debate helped me build an understanding of the world I want as well as the world we have. I know from personal experience that debate can change people for the better. Maybe if we cared more about our political debates, they could change our nation for the better. I have hope.


[1] He also asked Obama why he didn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, and asked Clinton about Sniper fire in Bosnia. It all seems like trivia today.

[2] Although as Dan Carlin commented, it’s telling that the solutions Brooks offers are no departure from center-right orthodoxy. To clean up corruption, Brooks suggests, “It’s time to drain the swamp by simplifying the tax code and streamlining the regulations businesses use to squash their smaller competitors.”

[3] It’s not.

[4] I based this on the sum of capital gains revenues predicted by the CBO from 2011-2020. Not rigorous, but in the right ballpark.

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