An article on the Opinion pages of Monday's Wall Street Journal is headlined "We Need Better Presidential Debates."
I couldn't agree more.
The writers, head of debate organization Intelligence Squared U.S. and an ABC News correspondent, make the case for us to use the standards of the classic Oxford-style debate, where the debaters have more time. They say this format would expose candidates who only use carefully canned responses, and it would force them to be more knowledgeable on issues.
I think I know why the current short-response format is used. Very simply... it makes for better TV.
Longer responses, which should bring more depth to what is being said, can test viewers' attention spans. So the current format, with its loose and unenforced rules, becomes a great reality TV show rather than a forum to inform and persuade voters. The Republican debates drew big audiences not so much for what was being said as for the potential spectacle of seeing candidates, particularly Trump, name-call, mug and make outrageous statements designed to be perfect attention-stealing sound bites. What have we learned, other than this one's a loser and that one's low-energy?
The WSJ article suggests the debates begin with each candidate having a 7-minute opening statement. With the initial field of seven or eight candidates, the Republican debates would have spent nearly an hour just on opening statements -- a surefire recipe for tune-outs. The networks carrying the debates sell commercial time, so they need the huge audiences in order to get good ad rates.
So 7-minute opening statements will never fly on commercial TV.
But here's a solution -- air all the debates on C-SPAN and public TV, where audiences and ad rates don't matter.
The other way to improve the debates in the future is to set ground-rules and stick by them. Candidates should be told in advance that they will have a 15-second overtime limit. When the bell signals time is up, they must know that their microphone will be turned off exactly 15 seconds later -- mid-sentence or not. And the mic should not be turned on again until it is their turn to respond. This will prevent interruptions by whoever is the loudest or rudest.
Ground-rules for behavior should also be set and enforced. No personal name-calling -- it belittles the candidates and the process. Each candidate can get one "pass" for bad behavior, but after a warning by the moderator, if a candidate violates the rules of decency and decorum, he or she should have their mic shut off and be asked to leave the stage.
Maybe then the candidates will be able to stick to a real discussion of the issues at hand, rather than forcing us to endure stupidity like a candidate calling another a loser, ugly or fat, or a mamma's boy.
Candidates can do and say whatever they like in their stump speeches and various campaign appearances. But the debates are supposed to be a chance for we, the voters, to size up the candidates, see where they stand on issues, and get an idea of their depth of knowledge and how they handle the verbal and mental challenges of a proper debate discussion.
Is that too much too ask?