Monday, November 2, 2015
The Problem With Debates In America...
Hint: Improve the candidates
Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2015 10:47 pm | Updated: 11:31 pm, Sun Nov 1, 2015.
Like millions of Americans with apparently little else to do, I watched the Republican Presidential debate last week. It was hosted by CNBC, a channel I can't ever remember watching before.
It was an awful debate. Why was it awful? Well, that itself is a matter of considerable debate.
Some claim the network did a terrible job on everything from the format to the post-debate coverage. They clearly seemed to be attempting something beyond their own capabilities and outside their professional comfort zone.
Many believe the questions asked by the moderators were unusually poor and antagonistic. They also lost control of the program at several different points, and the whole thing lacked cohesion and structure. It was like watching an auto race and just waiting for the inevitable accidents.
Candidate Ted Cruz drew the biggest applause of the night when he lambasted the "mainstream media" for allegedly treating Republicans differently from Democrats in terms of the questions being asked.
"This is not a cage match," the senator said. "How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?"
Let's be clear about a few things.
Yes, this debate was awful. And yes, it was largely due to the format and the moderators. They did a poor job on everything including the structure, the questions, managing the time, allowing themselves to be intimidated by the candidates and just trying to make themselves the center of attention rather than ceding that spotlight to those on stage.
Any debate needs one moderator to be in charge. You can have lots of panelists asking questions, but there needs to be a clear authoritative figure running the program. The idea of three or more equal partners switching back and forth is a recipe for disaster.
I have served as both a moderator and a panelist at local debates for offices ranging from school committee and selectmen to state representative and state senate. Each and every one of them had a moderator who was charged with maintaining order and keeping the candidates and panelists in line. It is Basic Debating 101.
As far as the questions that were asked - they weren't good. Or more accurately, they weren't worded well. They were poorly designed, poorly constructed and intended to draw attention to the questioner rather than the candidate.
At the same time, were they all that different from those asked at the Democratic debate? No, not really. But there were only five candidates at that event, as opposed to about double that number in the Republican version. That made things easier for both the candidates and the questioners in terms of maintaining focus.
As valid as criticism from Republicans may be concerning the manner in which questions were asked at the recent debate, it doesn't obscure the main problem with debates at nearly every level in this country. What is that?
Candidates simply don't answer the good questions when they are asked.
This is not a Republican issue, or a Democratic issue. It happens in national debates, statewide office debates, and in local races. It has become somewhat accepted, and something of a badge of honor.
Why do the panelists make their questions so pointed? To try and get a real answer out of the candidates. Think about it.
When the question is something like, "Mr. Trump, please explain exactly how you will pay for your plans to curb immigration and deport millions of people," it cries out for specifics. But instead you get ridiculously vague answers like "by doing good things" or "by cutting the fat."
And when panelists press for details, they are ridiculed by candidates and the public alike. That's largely because those watching the debates are mostly the people supporting the candidates. Their goal is limited to making their candidate more appealing, regardless of how that is accomplished.
And as often happens - the candidates lie. Donald Trump denied making statements that appeared on his own website. Ben Carson denied being connected to a controversial company while simultaneously admitting he did work for them.
So while the RNC and others complain about the quality of debates, they and their counterparts across the aisle should remember the easiest way to improve them.
Put better candidates up on the stage.