For Better Debates

Tomorrow will see what could be the last GOP presidential candidate debate, at 8 PM EST on CNN, broadcast from Mesa, Arizona. The next 2 scheduled debates have been cancelled, leaving only one more possible debate, scheduled for March 19 in Portland, Oregon, PBS.

Instead of having journalists ask questions in presidential and legislative debates, why not have the candidates ask the questions?  Candidates would take turns asking a question while the other would answer, followed by a rebuttal and surrebuttal.  The questions would be time limited to avoid mini-speeches in the form of a question, and a moderator would still be necessary to enforce time limits. 


Through candidate questions, voters would learn what both the Democrat and Republican candidates, representing their respective constituencies, believe to be the most important issues and top priorities.  The news media would still have plenty of opportunities to try to set the agenda for political races through their general coverage and interview questions.


This would eliminate charges of media/journalist bias through the topics they choose to dwell on or ignore, or specific questions which could be seen to favor a candidate, such as these softballs to John Kerry: What colossal misjudgments...has President Bush made in fighting the war on terror?  Give us some examples of what you consider to be his [Bush] not telling the truth?  Journalist bias creeps in even in a town-hall style debate, where audience members ask questions - either the moderator or news network screens and picks the questions they wish to ask.  And journalists could not use the debates to try to create controversy on a topic the public is not interested in, e.g., George Stephanopoulos arguing with Mitt Romney over whether Republicans want to outlaw contraceptives.  


Suspicion of a favored candidate knowing some of the questions prior to the debate would go away.  Cheating via underlings is very easy to carry out, either directly, or indirectly, e.g., leaving a list of questions on top of a desk or on a computer screen during a break, so that someone passing by can see the questions.


Newt Gingrich's proposal of Lincoln-Douglas style debates would be good for candidates like him, who are quite comfortable with debating, but most candidates, particularly incumbents, debate out of necessity and prefer a more structured debate.  Also, a non-moderator led debate might not work well if one of the debaters is extremely aggressive, e.g., Barney Frank.


When I was younger, I was an industrial engineer and management consultant.  I met and worked with many people who were terrific managers, but for whatever reasons, didn't interview well, and lacked that certain flair when dealing with upper management, particularly in a formal setting.  They would often be bypassed in favor of those who were not necessarily more knowledgeable, or better managers, but who looked and acted the part.  This comes to mind when I think of some Republican candidates, past and present, who aren't deemed presidential material.  For example, Rick Perry is smart and decent, appears to have performed well as a governor, and may have made a good president, but his debate and interviewing skills are lacking.  On the other hand, President Obama was rewarded for interviewing and campaigning well for his current job, but hasn't performed up to the high expectations he created, and voters expected.  Prior to becoming president, he had achieved high positions, but had few actual

accomplishments - plenty of sizzle, but no steak.  Ideally, debate skills (and campaign promises) wouldn't be so important, and more emphasis would be placed on accomplishments.  But because so many voters, independents in particular, will make their decision this November based largely on perceived debate performance, it's imperative that Republicans make the upcoming debates more meaningful and fairer.

Dan Nagasaki is the author of a book for teens and young adults: The Beginner's Guide to Conservative Politics.

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