A new format for presidential debates

There has been widespread dissatisfaction with previous presidential debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates.  In 2012, Candy Crowley stated shortly before the second debate that she would not abide by the contract she signed.  She then interfered in the debate on the side of Obama.  In 2008, the vice presidential debate moderator, Gwen Ifill, was completing a biography of Obama.  One can easily surmise that financial considerations alone gave her a bias favoring Joe Biden.  Clearly, her book had the potential to sell more copies if Obama won the presidency.  One may ask why the Republicans didn’t insist that these biased moderators be removed.  This tacit agreement to participate in a process that was biased against them may partially explain why they lost both races.

How can you solve the problem of biased moderators?  I suggest eliminating them and using the model of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.  There were seven debates, one in each congressional district, each of which was three hours long.  The first debater spoke for 60 minutes, the second spoke for 90 minutes, and the first responded for 30 minutes.  Today’s Americans don’t have the attention span for an unstructured three-hour debate.  I suggest that the candidates cover specific questions in fifteen-minute segments.  A coin toss determines which debater speaks first for five minutes.  The second debater then speaks for 7.5 minutes, and the first speaker responds for 2.5 minutes.  There is a timer in place of the moderator.  This allows for more time for speakers to talk without interruptions while also allowing them to challenge each other.  In contrast to the behavior of Candy Crowley in the second debate, Jim Lehrer in the first debate asked general questions and let the candidates talk.  My proposal codifies this by eliminating the moderators and putting the focus on the questions.

How are the questions determined?  One possibility is to have a liberal and a conservative scholar each selecting half of them.  Victor Davis Hanson would be a good choice for the conservative scholar.  Another alternative would be to have each campaign select 25% of the questions, with the scholars picking the remainder.  All of the questions would be known in advance to the public.  The only unknown in advance of the actual debate is who speaks first on a question.  This alternative is fair to both sides and removes the media from the debates.

The fall debates have recently been of two hours’ duration, including about twenty minutes of commercials.  Using my proposed fifteen-minute segments, this would allow for six questions in a debate with ten minutes for closing statements.  Recently, there have been both opening and closing statement, but I suggest eliminating the opening segment to allow for more questions.

My unbiased proposal allows voters to understand better how the candidates think about issues than under the current process.  It will be difficult to stall for 7.5 minutes.  It will challenge candidates to speak intelligently for that duration and the debates will be improved.

How would this change be implemented?  Currently, the Commission on Presidential Debates organizes them.  One possibility would be to petition the members of the commission to make this change.  Another alternative would be to bring this to the attention of the leading Republican candidates.  Removing the press from the process eliminates the possibility for bias to affect the result.  If the Democrats refuse to consider this change, the Republican candidate could refuse to participate in the debate.  There is no reason to give one side an advantage in shaping public opinion.