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Sunday Preview | Ideas

How to improve the debates

It’s time to get more imaginative about America’s most important political face-off

Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe

Until about three weeks ago, most Americans had never seen Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in a room together. That’s what made the prospect of their debates so exciting: After months of posturing, spinning, and sniping from afar, the two rivals would finally go toe-to-toe, stepping into the ring without a protective shield of advisers.

What actually happened when the candidates met, of course, was more posturing, spinning, and sniping, which is more or less how it goes every election year. Even in their best moments—and there are always a few—presidential debates end up telling us very little about the things we really need to know about our leaders. A president needs to make painful decisions under pressure, negotiate with those who disagree with him, find creative ways through seemingly intractable problems, and delegate with ruthless efficiency. Instead what we learn is how good the candidates are at redeploying their political talking points, or in some cases inventing new ones on the fly.


Presidential debates might seem to have a long, distinguished history in America, harking back to 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, competing for a Senate seat in Illinois, argued deeply and thoughtfully over the most important issues of the day. But the debates we see today are, in fact, almost entirely a product of the TV age—born in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in Chicago for a televised back-and-forth that was seen by almost 70 million people, and little changed since then.

Today we still fall back on the same old format: two people in a room, taking turns answering questions and hardly ever addressing each other directly. It’s hard to imagine this is the best we can come up with. The debates are—or should be—crucial to our democracy, virtually the only time the candidates appear unscripted before the American people. If we were to design them with only the voters in mind, as opposed to bowing to the demands of campaign officials seeking to protect their candidates from spontaneity, what could we do differently? Ideas asked experts in a variety of fields—from political science to psychology to mixed martial arts—to pretend they were in charge of staging the next confrontation between Romney and Obama, and asked them to imagine what a genuinely useful American presidential showdown might look like.



One of the most widely noted problems with the traditional debate format is that the candidates tend not to be penalized for stretching the truth or even lying outright. Last week moderator Candy Crowley drew immense flak for injecting a quick correction into the debate about whether the president had called the Libyan embassy attack an act of terror. According to Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, this is precisely what debates need more of. “Disregard for the facts, whether it comes from naked dishonesty or exploiting the gray areas of truthiness” could be reduced considerably with the introduction of real-time fact-checkers—“Pants-on-Fire-Fighters,” Pinker calls them—who could provide a sort of “instant replay” during the debate and point out misstatements as they are uttered. “In my fantasy, the candidates would respond,” Pinker wrote in an e-mail. “Not only would it be fair, but viewers and candidates alike would take the fact-checking more seriously.”

The fact-checking that does happen now—with news outlets chewing over everything the candidates say—doesn’t have the same effect as live interruptions would, according to Swarthmore College political scientist Benjamin Berger, author of the book “Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement.” The way debates are set up now, Berger points out, candidates don’t really have to worry about the consequences of lying, because the emotional points they score in the moment are unlikely to be erased even if some voters find out later they stretched the truth. If candidates are called out on the spot, that process might be disrupted. “There’s a strong emotion people have of not liking to be played for fools,” Berger said.



Debates today are a quiet affair: The candidates speak to an all-but-silent room, while the moderator tries to prevent them from interrupting each other. According to a leaked agreement between the two campaigns that was published last week by Time Magazine, the candidates aren’t even allowed to ask each other direct questions. Needless to say, this is not how the world really works: Decisions are made under stress, with lots of competing voices clamoring for the boss’s attention.

So instead of minimizing distractions, says Jacob Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, we ought to pile them on. “Television game shows periodically take advantage of this fact, either imposing difficult time constraints, playing distracting music or images, or requiring contestants to perform physical activities while answering questions,” Gersen wrote in an e-mail. Any schmuck could explain how to pay down the deficit under perfect conditions, in other words—let’s see him do it in a room full of flashing lights and the sound of a dozen people talking through the PA system.



On some level, the months leading up to Election Day are really just one long, highly public application process. What if the climax of that process wasn’t a series of debates, but rather a nationally televised job interview? Rami Genauer, who spends his days coming up with ways to score fights in mixed martial arts as director of FightMetric, suggests that instead of Jim Lehrer and Candy Crowley, candidates should face a panel of recruiters, and answer the kinds of questions the rest of us have faced when interviewing for a new gig. “This would be a format that is familiar to nearly all Americans, so they could make a truer connection,” Genauer wrote in an e-mail.

One potentially fruitful interview question could take the form of a hypothetical crisis, which the candidates would have to analyze on the spot before explaining how they’d work through it. Another might ask them to explain why their political opponents think what they think about a particular issue, and to locate the flaw in their reasoning. Other questions could be trickier, taking a page from companies like Google and Microsoft, which are known for subjecting their potential employees to brain-teasers and logic puzzles that test not just knowledge and salesmanship, but the ability to think through a new and complicated problem. If a person can’t quickly figure out how many golf balls might fit in a school bus, how are they going to deal with Syria?


Force candidates to convince actual voters who disagree with them.
Force candidates to convince actual voters who disagree with them.Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe


In his book “The Ethics of Voting,” Jason Brennan, a political scientist at Georgetown University, makes the unpalatable-sounding argument that most Americans know so little about the issues that they have a moral obligation not to cast a ballot on Election Day. And debates compound the problem, he says, by pandering precisely to those people who don’t have a firm grasp of how the world works. During last Tuesday’s debate, for instance, Brennan bristled at certain comments the candidates made about trade and the economy. “Probably these guys know better than a lot of what they’re saying, but they’re having a competition to appeal to...the median voter,” he said. “And the median voter has mistaken beliefs about economics.”

To reduce the pressure candidates feel to cater to common misconceptions, Brennan would like to see town-hall style debates radically restructured, so that instead of arguing with each other, the candidates were forced to convince actual voters who disagree with them on specific issues that they’re wrong. The candidate would have to be respectful toward the person’s view, which would show us one set of skills—and would also need to explain their disagreement in a palatable, nonideological, up-from-the-ground way that would be hugely informative to anyone who watched.


Give both candidates a long shopping list.
Give both candidates a long shopping list.Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe

Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, agrees that many voters aren’t informed enough to parse the nuances of a detailed policy discussion. (One might also argue that those who are informed enough probably won’t make up their minds based on 90 minutes of TV.) Instead of using debates to try to educate voters, though, Hanson suggests we just abandon our high-mindedness and replace the debates with something much easier to understand: reality TV-style contests in which the candidates compete along dimensions everyone would be able to follow. One idea: give both candidates a long shopping list and see which one can buy the items for the least money. Or we could get more ambitious. “I would love to see political candidates participate in a game of ‘Survivor,’” said Swarthmore’s Berger, “because seeing how they handle themselves in physically and emotionally grueling circumstances would give us a fair amount of insight into their character. And seeing how they negotiate alliances and up-close politics would tell us something about their practical political tools.”


To run a good campaign is to demonstrate a talent for management, decision-making, and stamina. But the extent to which it actually resembles the work of being president is open to question. Campaigning, after all, consists mainly of arguing viciously with your opponent and then declaring you’ve won the argument. Governing, on the other hand, requires a talent for compromise, an ability to set priorities, and a willingness to make concessions.

R. Jay Magill Jr., author of the recent book “Sincerity,” believes candidates should be able to show voters how good they are at striking deals, not just tell them about it. He suggests presenting the candidates with some divisive issue, like funding for Planned Parenthood, and asking them to discuss it with each other privately, until they’re ready to announce a course of action they both can live with, and explain why. “We would, like Job, see how far they were willing to bend in order to fulfill the rules,” wrote Magill in an e-mail. “What we learn by comparing the final outcome with each candidate’s original stance is the pliability of principles and the ability to negotiate—both essential qualities for a democratic type of personality.”


Are any of these innovations remotely imaginable in American politics? Almost certainly not, said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and author of the book, “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.” “These things are micromanaged to within an inch of their lives,” Schroeder said. “The campaigns are extraordinarily protective.”

If Schroeder had his way, there’d be no rules at all: The candidates would simply plop down across from one another at a table and talk for 90 minutes: no moderator, no questions, no nothing. “It’d be a kind of test of leadership—a test to see who would take charge...how the candidates would engage each other, how one would approach the other. If they’re determining the subject matter themselves, it would be such an unpredictable, freewheeling contest that people would be really fascinated.”

Unfortunately, such a spectacle is the stuff of dreams. According to the presidential historian H. W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the only innovation the voters should hope for is that the debates are canceled altogether.

“They tell us nothing useful about how a candidate would govern,” Brands wrote in an e-mail. “In fact, in elevating performance over substance, they actually mislead voters.” This is especially true, he warned, when one of the candidates is an incumbent: “Presidents have to act presidential,” he said. “War and peace can hinge on what they say. The challenger can speak irresponsibly.”

Of course, this presumes that speaking is the only thing the candidates can do. Why not a dance-off, one wonders? Or, seeing as Halloween is right around Election Day, a costume contest? Then again, perhaps a game of chess would be the simplest thing: That way, at least, we’ll know for sure who won.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.