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The Presidential Debates Failed Us -- Here's How to Fix Them

10/22/2012 02:24 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2012
  • Edward Lee Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law

No doubt the presidential debates have produced great drama and theater. And, as Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, the debates may end up having a much greater impact on the presidential race than in years past. The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney wouldn't even be in contention had he not done so well in the first debate and President Barack Obama so poorly, at least by expectations. Even more, the debates have exposed sharp differences between the two candidates--even to the point where they got in each other's faces in the second, town-hall debate and came to verbal blows.

All of that has elevated the importance of the debates in an election that appears to be close. The presidential debates have mattered, as Noonan concludes. But have they told American voters the information they need for the next four years?

I don't think so. Fixing the economy, creating jobs, and lowering the national debt before the fiscal cliff comes at the end of 2012 have received deserved attention. But a host of national issues have received none.

Take, for example, the Internet. Not a single question in 180 minutes of presidential debates and 90 minutes of the vice presidential debate touched upon the candidates' view of the Internet, in any respect. Yet so much of our national interest is tied to the Internet, whether it be in promoting innovation and creation of new startups, protecting the Internet from cyberattack as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned just this week, or in figuring out how to protect intellectual property without stifling the freedom of speech and the openness of the Internet. After the historic Wikipedia blackout of January 18, 2012, when millions of people protested and effectively stopped the passage of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, surely Americans would benefit from learning each candidate's Internet policy. Surely, at least one of the topics--innovation, cybersecurity, intellectual property, and free speech on the Internet--is important enough to ask the candidates as we enter the second decade of the 21st century? If the United States is to remain a leader of innovation, its Internet policies will be crucial.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and its general manager Erik Martin tried to raise the important issue of Internet policy for the 2012 elections. They took an Internet bus tour from Denver, the site of the first presidential debate, to Danville, the site of the vice presidential debate. What a great idea, but too bad Ohanian and Martin could not hand deliver a question to Jim Lehrer or Candy Crowley to ask the candidates.

So how do we fix the debates? Format is everything. The first part of the debate (let's say the first 60 minutes) should be devoted exclusively to the future policies and plans of the candidates on a range of important national issues, ranging from the economy to Internet policy. During this "future policy" part of the debate, the candidates should be barred from making personal attacks or talking about past records or failures. (If people can't do without those, we can save personal attacks and indictments of each other's records for the second part of the debate.) If the candidate breaks the "no personal attack" rule, the moderator can take away time from the candidate.

Just what topics make the list for the "policy" part of the debate should be determined by a process that allows for input from American voters online, both by submission of actual questions and voting on the general topics they would like to see covered in the debates. The moderators of the debates should be given some discretion to winnow the topics to a manageable list, but there should be an expectation that the moderator will cover at least the Top 5 topics voted on by the American people.

The fine details of the process will have to be worked out. But the basic idea is to let the American people hear the presidential candidates answer the questions on the topics most important to them for the next four years, instead of personal attacks and more of the same. Giving Americans helpful information about future policies of the candidates in a presidential debate? Fancy that.