For many years, political debates have been--and still are--a great way for candidates to introduce themselves to American voters, whether watched by a live audience or broadcast on television and radio. Debates introduce the candidates to the public, and even help the candidates themselves to shape their original ideas to be more sophisticated and coherent so that they resonate with the electorate.
In recent years, these debates seem to have lost some of their educational value to bitter feuding, as well as continual switching of positions by participants catering to what they perceive as changing tastes of the voters. The debates seem to have become little more than a combination of catchy punch lines and repetitive talking points and sound bites repeated ad nauseaum--and with rapidly diminishing substance.
In many ways we can blame the debate format, which has been continually changed and reshaped by debate organizers, media corporations and campaign managers to accommodate a growing field of debates and debaters. This ultimately renders the original and often repeated purpose of the debates into an impossibility.
In April 2005, I was a member of the panel that presented questions to the two finalists for mayor of Los Angeles: incumbent James Hahn, who had completed his first term, and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. The debate was the first of its kind and magnitude to be broadcast on Spanish-language TV and was organized by KVEA-34 Univision and La Opinión. The questions were formulated in Spanish; an interpreter translated them to English for the candidates and and then another translated candidates' answers back into Spanish. The process was as smooth as possible and thousands of Latino citizens who prefer Spanish felt respected and informed. It was the right thing to do.
Villaraigosa went on to win that election and was reelected in 2009. However, this Latino elected official, who commands an acceptable but fairly basic level of conversational Spanish, did not want to be seen wearing a headset, or have to stop the debate and lose precious seconds asking for clarification. He wasn't confident of his ability to understand completely. What was the man to do? He approached me seconds before the broadcast began and asked me to speak slowly...
Fast forward to the present; the Republican debates are a hit this season. Last week, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry announced he was considering skipping some or all the remaining televised debates. Over the weekend, Perry relented, saying he will participate in four scheduled debates next month. "There are numerous - 15, 16, 17 - debates, and we're taking a look at each one and making the appropriate consideration," said a spokesman, Mark Miner, to The Guardian.
It's true. The debates are numerous. Actually, 23 of them. There were four in September, two in October; three are planned for November and four for December. The next debate is due November 9th at Oakland University in Rochester, Minnesota.
The debates have become the focus of the Republican presidential campaign. Like a troupe, the group of eight candidates (at last count) travels from town to town, pulls in and starts the show. This is what the debates have become today. One of the oldest and most respected expressions of American democracy has been turned into little more than a reality show, where the candidate with the loudest voice scores points among an increasingly strident crowd.
Why so many? Does the increased amount of debates provide the public with additional tools to make an informed decision? The debates have become wildly popular, attracting millions, and according to The New York Times, "twice as many viewers as any of the early debates, Democratic or Republican, did four years ago."
Pressed by a hectic schedule, a shortage of time to present real positions, haunted by the presence of candidates that otherwise would have dropped out of the race long ago, these debates are turning into a shouting contest. Plans are are introduced to the public without much preparation, it seems, and just for the sake of publicity (or entertainment).
And so, the only thing that outweighs the rhythmic chanting of "Nine Nine Nine" (a tax plan setup by the most implausible of candidates, Herman Cain) is Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann's observation that if you put it upside down it turns into "Six Six Six"... the Devil!
But a lot of the triviality and shallowness of the most recent debates is a product of the format's limitations. Candidates are provided with constantly changing schedules, and face new rules at each debate.
Each candidate is given a minute or so to explain his or her philosophy, if he or she has one. If another candidate is mentioned, they have 30 seconds to respond. There may or may not be opening or closing statements. There may or may not be a right to ask each other a question, or be forbidden from talking directly to rivals. Sometimes just explaining the rules to the public takes five precious minutes. And when the number of participants is still eight, the chances to get an informed answer to an intelligent question dangerously diminishes.
The moderators have a nearly impossible task, trying to maintain at least the perception that all candidates have equal talking time, and that none of them is controlling the entire event. They must ensure questions are answered and maintain respect and decorum, an increasingly daunting challenge when a frequent punchline lately has been that "the media" is "dead set against the GOP" and thus conspiring to incite confrontation in order to make the participants look bad.
In the most recent GOP debate, Texas governor Rick Perry was cheered when he answered Anderson Cooper's insistence on answering the question with, "You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to." Former House speaker Newt Gingrich also received applause for using his last line to attack Cooper for "maximizing bickering" among the participants.
We know it is a debate because the most frequently repeated phrase is "We are running out of time." The pace is frenetic, the cameras swing wildly from one face to another, and very quickly, everything is over... Or are we bored enough and change to another reality show. A real one, not a staged performance.
Formats can differ. Last year, on September 29, I moderated a radio debate jointly with Patt Morrison for KPCC-FM between California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina. There was much at stake. Fiorina ran a strong campaign and with the posibility of her winning there was the spectre of Democrats losing their majority in the Senate. This would be the last debate between the two before the election, and there was a great deal of interest and expectations.
But the candidates didn't have a time limit. That way, there was less need to interrupt one other, and they had more time to explain their position and avoid sound bites and the gaffes that inevitabily come with them. At the same time, we prevented them to dominating the debate by frequently correcting them when they steered away from the question, and their common sense dictated that at some point the question was answered. We tried to maintain a balance without being intrusive nor rude. We tried not to interrupt them in the middle of a sentence, but sometimes we did, because we really wanted to know what they thought about the topics. Maybe it was easier because we broadcast from a tiny radio studio in Pasadena with no public present, and Senator Boxer participated from the NPR studios in Washington, DC.
In the end, what is better? Short and frequently-repeated cliches, quickly digested but easily forgotten? Or long speeches, hard to grasp but fertile material for future historians? A debate with a panel of journalists reading aloud their questions and rapidly fading into oblivion? A moderator who is himself a media star? Questions from the public? Do voters learn from televised or broadcast debates? Do debates help them to form opinions at all?
In the Illinois (Senate) Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, attended by hundreds in a live audience (but obviously not broadcast to millions), one of the candidates started with a 60-minute speech and was followed by the opposing candidate, who had 90 minutes, no less. The rival then had another 30 minutes. Lincoln lost to the incumbent, but was able to build upon the clarity of his discourse and published a book based on his speeches.
He went on to win the presidency two years later.
How things have changed.