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How to fix presidential debates

At their meeting in Boston last week, Republican National Committee members voted unanimously not to sponsor or sanction any presidential primary debate with NBC or CNN during the 2016 election cycle. Both networks have projects about Hillary Clinton in the works that Republicans predict will be “little more than extended commercials” promoting a potential run for the White House by the former secretary of state. The RNC, saying it’s fed up with the media’s liberal favoritism, will refuse to partner with either NBC or CNN as the next primary season gets under way.

Considering how riven the GOP has been lately, a unanimous stand on anything is impressive. But boycotting the two networks on the grounds that they’re biased won’t fix what’s wrong with modern candidate debates.

Debates about debates are nothing new; neither are complaints about the political bias of the media sponsors or the moderators. Since most mainstream news organizations tilt to the left, the protests have frequently come from Republicans and conservatives.

But it works the other way, too. Fox News was compelled to cancel a scheduled Democratic presidential primary debate in 2007 when most of the leading candidates (including then-Senator Clinton) boycotted the event because of Fox’s tilt to the right.


Some moderators are better than others at suppressing any appearance of ideological or political partiality, but does that really make for better debates? After all, candidates don’t run for the White House because they crave four years of politics-free serenity. The presidency isn’t a haven from partisan bias, ideological agendas, or liberal-conservative warfare. Political debates are meant to enlarge voters’ insight into the candidates seeking their vote — insight into not only their ideas about government and their stands on current issues, but also their ability to think on their feet, to respond to criticism, and to defend their views in the face of difficult or pointed challenges.

There are better ways to improve candidate debates than by demanding a Caesar’s-wife standard of purity from the news organizations sponsoring them. Here are three suggestions.

1. Look beyond the media for sponsors and moderators.

Just because TV networks have the cameras doesn’t mean they have to be in charge of the debates. Journalists and news anchors aren’t the only people who can pose questions to candidates and enforce time limits. Why shouldn’t debates be organized by think tanks or universities or research laboratories? If debates can be held at presidential libraries, why can’t the questioners be presidential historians? Or former presidential counselors? Or even past presidential candidates?


Nothing against Bob Schieffer or Jim Lehrer, but nowhere is it carved in granite that they are the very model of a modern presidential debate moderator. Imagine instead a debate with Michael Dukakis and James Baker as co-moderators. Or one in which the questions were posed to the candidates by David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Would Americans tune in to watch? Of course they would.

2. Focus debates on a single subject.

Real debates don’t cover the waterfront; they concentrate on one important question. Their purpose is to make a convincing case for opposing points of view, and debaters come prepared to defend their positions with serious arguments and rebuttals.

What passes for “debate” in modern presidential campaigns, by contrast, is nothing but a shower of talking point and back-and-forth sniping. The candidates aren’t there to drill down at length into one controversial topic. They are there to deal with any question that might be thrown at them, they are expected to speak in 60- or 90-second sound bites, and they know that in five minutes the subject may change to something quite unrelated.

Far better would be single-question debates on thorny issues — Obamacare, radical Islam, entitlement reform — that would allow candidates to set aside the glib tit-for-tats, and give voters a chance to see how thoughtful they can be.


3. Eliminate moderators altogether.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas didn’t need referees or questions from panelists to distinguish themselves in the most famous series of debates in US political history. Seven times the candidates engaged on the question of slavery, with a three-hour format that seems impossible by today’s shallow standards. No sponsors, no moderators, no Q-and-A: Just two candidates debating at length. Tens of thousands of voters turned out to see the debates; journalists swarmed to cover them.

Lincoln and Douglas treated voters as adults, capable of dealing with difficult ideas and long, serious discussions. Would that candidates today did likewise.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.