If the 2012 campaign is an endurance race, we're now in the home stretch just before the finish line, halfway through the four debates that will quite possibly decide this election. After the first presidential face-off, which was watched by nearly 70 million people and yielded Mitt Romney a bounce of over 4 percent, nobody is doubting the debates' importance. Then, last week, 51 million people tuned in to see Vice President Biden square off against Rep. Paul Ryan. The biggest bounce from that debate was for the word "malarkey."
And as we lead up to tonight's debate between Obama and Romney at Hofstra University, there is speculation about how the town hall format will suit each candidate. But as long as we're debating the debates, let's go deeper for a moment. Why do we have them at all? I'm not saying we shouldn't -- after all, as Northeastern University's Alan Schroeder puts it, "debates retain the power to generate a collective national experience, one built not around athletic competition but around the future of the country." But, as they're presently constituted, what exactly are the debates teaching us about the candidates? Are they set up to give an accurate idea of what a candidate might be like as a president? What skills are they really testing? Can we come up with something better?
After the first presidential debate in Denver, there was online chatter about whether Romney had covertly brought some notes to his podium. The mystery object turned out to be just a handkerchief. But the bigger mystery is: Why can't candidates bring notes of any kind? When is a sitting president ever going to be faced with a situation in which he's going to need to make an important decision without availing himself of any outside information? Information is good -- indeed, very few crises in our history have come about because a president wanted to consider too much outside information.
So why not let candidates have notes or charts or slideshows -- or any visuals they want? What exactly is being tested by not letting them have notes? Memorization and improv skills? Those are perfectly good talents to have, but I'm not sure they have much to do with being a great president. The tension created by the no-notes high-wire act is certainly entertaining, but the unquestioned idea that succeeding in this challenge should necessarily elevate our estimation of a candidate's qualifications to be president should be, well, questioned.
"Why do we assume that presidential debates should be broadcast on and organized around television, the most vacuous medium in American life?" writes Conor Friedersdorf. "TV is the place where physical attractiveness, affected theatrics, and body language matter, and where journalists are successful partly based on their ability to have good hair." He also writes that most of the memorable moments from debates past -- Ronald Reagan's quip about his microphone, Al Gore sighing, Michael Dukakis not reacting with suitable horror to a question about his wife being hypothetically raped -- "ought to have been totally irrelevant to assessing the given candidates."
Ruzwana Bashir, CEO of Peek and former president of the Oxford Union debating society, writes that the "world of TV debates is antiquated" and that new technology should be brought to the process. "If millions of Americans choose to weigh in on the outcome of American Idol through text messages and the Web," she writes, "then why not harness similar technological tools to encourage discourse on the political landscape?"
Bashir doesn't get specific, but Friedersdorf does. He calls for "text-based debates," in which opposing candidates would be sat in different rooms, given computers and engage in something like an IM chat. "I think text would easily prove more substantive than broadcast," he writes. "There'd be a nice transcript at the end that voters could consult. The political press wouldn't waste time talking about body language, facial expressions, dress, or other nonsense that is covered as if it's important because it's covered as if it's important."
It's an interesting idea. It lessens the chance that something like the way a presidential candidate laughs or how much he (or, someday, she) sweats will be a factor in the election, but let's take it a step further -- what about at least one debate that is structured to resemble the decision-making process a president would actually go through in office? For starters, they could have access to all the information they want. It's fun to see how a candidate responds to a zinger, but it'd be much more instructive to see how a candidate goes about seeking information that he doesn't know. So give them web access. And give them a phone -- to borrow from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, we could have a "Phone an Advisor" option. Or we could have candidates bring their advisors on stage with them. The moderator could throw out a difficult hypothetical; the candidates would consult their respective advisors and come back with an answer. That is, after all, how the presidency actually works.
Having a candidate be able to admit he doesn't know something and seek out information from other sources is a good trait -- one that's especially valuable in an office as powerful and yet as sealed off from the outside world as the presidency. But the way our debates are currently set up, an answer like, "Actually, Jim, I don't know the answer to that, but I can tell you who I'd call," would be political suicide. And yet our country is currently muddling through a historic economic crisis -- not to mention an 11-year war -- that is the result of leaders that didn't know, or at least refused to admit, how much they don't know.
Another idea: have a break midway through the debate -- and use the halftime not for marching bands and Gatorade but for a round of fact-checking. Thanks to new media, we are awash in debate fact-checking -- much of it in real time. But almost none of it finds its way into the actual debate. During the first presidential debate, there were 10 million tweets. During the VP debate there were 4 million. According to Twitter's VP debate breakdown, 26 percent were on foreign policy, 21 percent on the economy and 16 percent on taxes. Politifact and Factcheck.org both live-tweet fact-checks, as do the New York Times and Washington Post (their fact-checks of the first debate are here and here). During the first debate the New York Times' Caucus blog sent out this tweet: "Fact check: Romney's claim that Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare has been repeatedly debunked http://bit.ly/Re3BVg #AskNYT."
So why can't all this useful information be made even more useful by being inserted into the debate itself? During the halftime break, the debate moderator could consult the same Twitter fact-checking that millions of viewers at home are reading and, when the debate resumes, come back at the candidates with it.
And then we could see the candidates dance, each paired with a professional dancer and performing a very challenging tango with the truth. Okay, I'm kidding about this last part (mostly!), but we should be open to any and all ideas that can help make modern debates better by testing the skills a president will actually use once in office.
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