Six Ways To Improve The Debates

Think the debates are boring? We can rebuild them!

The consensus seems to be that Tuesday night’s presidential debate was extremely boring. Here are six viable suggestions for how the next one could be better.

Use a buzzer

Tom Brokaw was frustrated by the candidates’ reluctance to respect the time limits to which they had previously agreed. A loud and abrasive buzzer, of the sort that signifies a shot clock violation in basketball, could help solve that problem. Whenever a candidate exceeds the time allotted for a response, he should be greeted by a resounding buzz, cutting him off in mid-sentence and making it clear that his time has expired. (The producers of the Academy Awards play music when acceptance speeches run long. But a buzz will do fine for McCain and Obama.) Although initially the candidates might be startled (we wouldn’t tell them about the buzzer), they’ll soon adapt. And if they don’t, well, they’ll hear about it.

Choose better questions

Tuesday night’s debate was boring primarily because of the lame questions Tom Brokaw chose to ask. The mouth-breathers in the audience served up softballs (with a few exceptions), while Brokaw’s own contributions were generally irrelevant. Who will be the next treasury secretary? Is Russia under Putin still an evil empire? Please. These are questions for a Web poll or a sophomore dorm room, not for a presidential debate—one of the three best chances Americans will have to gauge the candidates’ intelligence and perspicacity. The next debate’s questions should be so pointed as to draw blood.

Focus on a single issue

Or two. No more. These overly broad debate mandates (foreign policy, domestic policy) lead to overly broad questions, which lead to pat, unsatisfactory answers—and the candidates can get away with them because they know that, in a matter of minutes, the moderator will switch topics. If an entire debate were to focus on, say, the economy, the candidates would be forced to actually delve into specifics and talk about ideas, not just lean on talking points and old clichés.

Three clichés and you’re out

ESPN’s sports talk show Around The Horn is pretty tiresome, but I’ve always liked the idea that moderator Tony Reali, if a guest says something overwhelmingly stupid, is able to mute the offending microphone for a few seconds. Before next Wednesday, Schieffer should compile a list of each candidate’s favorite phrases—“maverick” and “Washington outsider” for McCain, for instance, or “Wall Street/Main Street” and “change” for Obama—and tell the candidates that they can use any variation of these phrases exactly three times during the debate. If they exceed that limit, their microphones will be muted for ten seconds. (Maybe we could also use the buzzer.) This could force the candidates to actually take care in choosing their words and deliver responses that are beyond boilerplate—or it could just result in a lot of dead air.

Eliminate the moderator

Since the moderator has been superfluous in all three debates, why not just eliminate the position and let the candidates battle it out freestyle for ninety minutes? Announce the topic at the outset and just let them go in whatever directions they choose. Sure, this could become chaotic, but I think the candidates would soon tire of insults and banter and might actually get around to something resembling a conversation.

Let each candidate bring a posse

The trouble with these one-on-one debates is that they misrepresent the actual amount of power a president holds. A president doesn’t fix crises or implement policies unilaterally—he’s merely the star player on a fairly large team, and he’s only as good as his teammates. So why not let McCain and Obama each bring three advisers and turn the evening into a team debate? Not only would this lead to more informative and comprehensive answers, it would also be truer to the actual rules of parliamentary debate. (This Lincoln-Douglas crap just isn’t cutting it any more.)

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.