Something completely different

When Sen. John Kerry, in his first answer of the final presidential debate, uttered the phrases 'rushed to war,' and 'pushed away alliances,' to a question regarding domestic security, it was easy to imagine millions of viewers clicking over to one of the two baseball playoff games being played at the same time.

Many likely changed the channel not so much because of what Kerry was saying, but because he had already said it during the previous two debates. Since the current debate formats seem to encourage the repetition of phrases and talking points no matter what the subject, and place as much or more importance on non—verbal expressions than what is actually said, it's time for the Commission on Presidential Debates to change or improve the current formats.

First, it would be nice to see an actual debate. Dan Rather's career may be beyond salvage at this point, but he is correct when insisting upon calling the current format a 'joint appearance.' How much more interesting would the first debate had been if, for an hour or even 90 minutes, the candidates would have discussed this statement: The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified. The candidates, having been given the topic in advance, could have given opening statements of five to eight minutes, with sufficient time for rebuttals, which means more than 90 seconds.

Such an open—ended topic would have allowed President George W. Bush to methodically outline his thinking regarding his arguments to Congress, the United Nations, and the final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, a litany that cannot be recited in two minutes. In such a format, the President would have been unwise to say it's 'hard work' 15 times. In turn, Sen. Kerry would have to defend his votes in the Senate regarding Iraq now and in 1991, and actually articulate an alternate plan of action without dismissively commanding the public to 'go to johnkerry.com.' Perhaps the candidates would even be allowed to question each other and that discussion would inevitably lead to other aspects of foreign policy and the war on terrorism. Logically, this format could be used for domestic issues as well.

This format would mercifully lessen the importance of the moderator, whose role in the above example would be to, well, moderate. He or she would introduce the candidates, explain the format, maintain order, and wrap up at the conclusion of the debate, as well as keep the time and inform the candidates when theirs has expired during the contest.

Too often in the debates, the moderators and panelists have engaged in 'gotcha' questions in an attempt to throw a candidate off track or make a splash for selfish considerations. Who can forget in 1988 when, in the space of five minutes, Bernard Shaw outlined scenarios in which Kitty Dukakis had been raped and murdered, and George H. W. Bush had been assassinated? There is nothing wrong with taking the debate out of the hands of the moderator, or the candidates and their handlers knowing the specific topic of each debate a week or so in advance, in which time they can prepare cogent arguments and present them to the nation. After all, most policy and decision—making in the White House is made after examining all of the facts and weighing the arguments, not responding in two minutes to some clever word painting by a self—appointed arbiter of relevance.

If the Commission and/or future candidates insist upon retaining the 'town hall' format, it should be hoped that it will be without a studio audience made up of so—called undecided voters. The constant wooing and coddling of the undecided is completely out of hand. In this election, it is nearly impossible to understand a voter's confusion. For 2008, a town hall debate would be much more interesting and effective if the members of the audience were split evenly — half supporting the Democratic nominee, half supporting the Republican nominee. As it is now, the undecided audience members are allowed to write and ask questions of the candidates. But why reward indecision when the questions that informed and engaged voters would fashion could serve a more useful purpose? 

The town hall format would be more significant if Democratic supporters were permitted to question the Republican candidate on his or her positions, and vice versa. Candidates could cease concentrating on the 'undecided' in the room who, given some of their questions, seem to base their ultimate decisions on whichever candidate can offer the most attractive personal promises, which usually constitute the emptiest promises. 

One request, however, if the 'podium' debate format remains unchanged in 2008: enough with the fluffy personal questions about how women have influenced the lives of the candidates and the like. While the comedic possibilities of having asked John Kennedy what he had learned from women in his life, or querying Abraham Lincoln about his wife ('Well, Bob, I think it's safe to say she's nuts about me!') would have been intriguing, these sorts of questions really have no business in presidential debates past or present. Deeds speak louder than words in such facets of life, and it's self—evident to all how women have influenced the likes of Bill Clinton, Sen. Kerry, and President Bush. Leave the inane questions for Oprah, where they belong.

The Commission on Presidential Debates can take these suggestions and critiques for what they are worth. But unless the format for Presidential debates is tweaked to make things more interesting for the candidates and the voters alike, Americans will continue to listen indifferently every four years to silly questions from moderators and the undecided, and prefabricated sound byte pie—in—the—sky from the candidates will be the coin of the realm. We deserve better. 

Matthew May is a freelance writer and can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com

When Sen. John Kerry, in his first answer of the final presidential debate, uttered the phrases 'rushed to war,' and 'pushed away alliances,' to a question regarding domestic security, it was easy to imagine millions of viewers clicking over to one of the two baseball playoff games being played at the same time.

Many likely changed the channel not so much because of what Kerry was saying, but because he had already said it during the previous two debates. Since the current debate formats seem to encourage the repetition of phrases and talking points no matter what the subject, and place as much or more importance on non—verbal expressions than what is actually said, it's time for the Commission on Presidential Debates to change or improve the current formats.

First, it would be nice to see an actual debate. Dan Rather's career may be beyond salvage at this point, but he is correct when insisting upon calling the current format a 'joint appearance.' How much more interesting would the first debate had been if, for an hour or even 90 minutes, the candidates would have discussed this statement: The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified. The candidates, having been given the topic in advance, could have given opening statements of five to eight minutes, with sufficient time for rebuttals, which means more than 90 seconds.

Such an open—ended topic would have allowed President George W. Bush to methodically outline his thinking regarding his arguments to Congress, the United Nations, and the final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, a litany that cannot be recited in two minutes. In such a format, the President would have been unwise to say it's 'hard work' 15 times. In turn, Sen. Kerry would have to defend his votes in the Senate regarding Iraq now and in 1991, and actually articulate an alternate plan of action without dismissively commanding the public to 'go to johnkerry.com.' Perhaps the candidates would even be allowed to question each other and that discussion would inevitably lead to other aspects of foreign policy and the war on terrorism. Logically, this format could be used for domestic issues as well.

This format would mercifully lessen the importance of the moderator, whose role in the above example would be to, well, moderate. He or she would introduce the candidates, explain the format, maintain order, and wrap up at the conclusion of the debate, as well as keep the time and inform the candidates when theirs has expired during the contest.

Too often in the debates, the moderators and panelists have engaged in 'gotcha' questions in an attempt to throw a candidate off track or make a splash for selfish considerations. Who can forget in 1988 when, in the space of five minutes, Bernard Shaw outlined scenarios in which Kitty Dukakis had been raped and murdered, and George H. W. Bush had been assassinated? There is nothing wrong with taking the debate out of the hands of the moderator, or the candidates and their handlers knowing the specific topic of each debate a week or so in advance, in which time they can prepare cogent arguments and present them to the nation. After all, most policy and decision—making in the White House is made after examining all of the facts and weighing the arguments, not responding in two minutes to some clever word painting by a self—appointed arbiter of relevance.

If the Commission and/or future candidates insist upon retaining the 'town hall' format, it should be hoped that it will be without a studio audience made up of so—called undecided voters. The constant wooing and coddling of the undecided is completely out of hand. In this election, it is nearly impossible to understand a voter's confusion. For 2008, a town hall debate would be much more interesting and effective if the members of the audience were split evenly — half supporting the Democratic nominee, half supporting the Republican nominee. As it is now, the undecided audience members are allowed to write and ask questions of the candidates. But why reward indecision when the questions that informed and engaged voters would fashion could serve a more useful purpose? 

The town hall format would be more significant if Democratic supporters were permitted to question the Republican candidate on his or her positions, and vice versa. Candidates could cease concentrating on the 'undecided' in the room who, given some of their questions, seem to base their ultimate decisions on whichever candidate can offer the most attractive personal promises, which usually constitute the emptiest promises. 

One request, however, if the 'podium' debate format remains unchanged in 2008: enough with the fluffy personal questions about how women have influenced the lives of the candidates and the like. While the comedic possibilities of having asked John Kennedy what he had learned from women in his life, or querying Abraham Lincoln about his wife ('Well, Bob, I think it's safe to say she's nuts about me!') would have been intriguing, these sorts of questions really have no business in presidential debates past or present. Deeds speak louder than words in such facets of life, and it's self—evident to all how women have influenced the likes of Bill Clinton, Sen. Kerry, and President Bush. Leave the inane questions for Oprah, where they belong.

The Commission on Presidential Debates can take these suggestions and critiques for what they are worth. But unless the format for Presidential debates is tweaked to make things more interesting for the candidates and the voters alike, Americans will continue to listen indifferently every four years to silly questions from moderators and the undecided, and prefabricated sound byte pie—in—the—sky from the candidates will be the coin of the realm. We deserve better. 

Matthew May is a freelance writer and can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com