Monday, May 16, 2016

Reimagining the Presidential Debates

gop-republican-debateDuring the last election cycle, I wrote an op-ed with my colleague, Heather Kulp, noting that the so-called Presidential debates had devolved into something more akin to football matches.  With the emphasis on entertainment, strict time clocks, and ubiquitous analysis of who “won,” the prospect of any thoughtful discussion of the issues seemed to fade largely into the background.

Sadly, although we wrote this op-ed in 2012, it is equally relevant today. In fact, some might argue that the situation has deteriorated. At least in the last election cycle, the candidates seemed to more or less obey the debate rules, even though the rules themselves tended to promote the use of one-line soundbites instead of reasoned policy discussion. This time around—primarily, though not exclusively, in the Republican primary debates—the sessions often resembled lawless, chaotic free-for-alls in which the candidates’ only shared goal was to be the loudest bully on the stage. The audience became an additional set of participants, inserting cheers or jeers seemingly without a filter. The debates looked more and more like WWF events than a forum for helping citizens in the world’s most powerful and important democracy select their next leader. Thanks to Donald Trump, and with an assist from the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (among others) any hope that the debates might focus on important national issues such as immigration, criminal justice reform, or healthcare dissipated thanks to nasty personal attacks about the size of the candidates’ hands and other body parts.

I am not the first to write about the decrepit state of political dialogue and farce that presidential debates have become during this election cycle. But with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) currently considering the format of the debates that are set to occur during the general election this fall, this is an important moment to re-think the form and content of these events and to ensure that these events fulfill the mission of the Commission, namely to “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”

Given this stated purpose, it’s hard to see how many (if any) of the debates we have seen so far this election cycle have done much more than to produce Tweetable soundbites and lots of sad headshaking. This product has been profitable for the news networks that have co-hosted these debates with the political parties so far. They’ve also been a boon for bloggers, Twitter, and others who resort to social media for spin and attention. Regrettably, at times even more serious journalism outlets have resorted to oversimplistic clickbait instead of covering the issues.  Troublingly, the co-chair of the CPD seems to believe that the debates should go even further in this direction; his group is examining the role of social media into the elections and thinking about “how do we incorporate that” into the debates themselves.

I would suggest that what is actually needed in this political moment is the exact opposite:  an about-face in purpose and format. The public does not need yet another forum that further resembles what they see on their Twitter feed or on 45-second cable news reports. What is most needed in this moment is a different kind of forum, one that provides an opportunity for the candidates to speak with thoughtfulness and nuance, to demonstrate their listening and persuasion skills, to assert and also to empathize. Rather than making the Presidential debates look even more like what we see on the internet and on our phones, what is most called for in this moment is a space that looks utterly unlike the one we enter when sign into Facebook.

So what would this kind of space actually look like? To start, the room itself could be organized differently. The familiar setup of podiums standing in front of a table of moderators and a studio audience encourages pontification, rather than conversation. What would be more effective might be inviting the two candidates to sit around a table with 5-6 citizens who would ask questions directly to the candidate. There would be no need for an audience at all. By eliminating an audience of hundreds, the temptation of a candidate to respond with a quip or applause-generating one-liner would fade. (The October 22, 2012, debate between President Obama and Governor Romney—in which the audience took a vow of silence—was a step in the right direction.)  Also seated at the table could be a facilitator—not a “moderator,” as we are used to, but rather an individual helping the conversation to proceed and ensuring that the structure of the session was fair and balanced. By enabling the candidates to articulate their views while also being a participant in a group conversation, the facilitator would be situating the candidates in a role that they are likely to encounter frequently if they become President, but, that we as voters rarely see during their campaigns.

Some might argue that this kind of forum would neither create the drama we are accustomed to in a debate nor put a candidate under the kind of pressure she might face as President. But drama is not the point of these gatherings and I submit that responding articulately in a measured conversation involving the other candidate, a facilitator, and a small group of citizens better tests a candidate’s ability to be responsive and reflective even as it might downplay her skills for quick wit.

Many, I suspect, already feel cynical or hopeless about the prospect of changing the way our politicians interact with each other, particularly when we measure the success of the debates through network ratings and number of retweets. But I feel certain that there is in fact a huge swath of the American public that is hungry for a more thoughtful, substantive, and nuanced discussion among the candidates than the ones we typically see. If the CPD is truly interested in advancing its mission this election cycle, they should be bold in asserting their own leadership, and consider the many ways in which they could make changes in the way we think about and conduct our debates. The changes I propose here might seem drastic and non-traditional.  But non-traditional seems to be a theme in this year’s election cycle and this is a change that I think many would find welcome and illuminating.


Prof. Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor and Founding Director of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program.