Since they began, televised presidential debates have been steadily trudging toward irrelevancy. But this year may be different, with at least three chances for voters to gain useful information and insight into the contenders and their policies.
The frayed, time-starved and candidate-controlled format of the past is being replaced. With enough wit and courage, the moderators can use the new one to serve the needs of voters more than the needs of the campaigns and the networks.
The question is whether they will.
Under the old format, many of the most memorable moments were cosmetic – Richard Nixon’s pasty, sweating face; or gaffes – Gerald Ford’s “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”; or contrived or ad-libbed zingers – Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” and Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Ridiculously brief question segments, a perceived need to cover too many issues, and the canned opening and closing candidate statements exhausted the time and limited the information. Impressions inevitably triumphed over insight. Most “debates” were mere extensions of the packaged campaigns.
The sponsoring nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates thankfully has moved so far away from many traditional elements of debating that the new format feels more like a joint press conference.
Gone are opening and closing statements, automatic rebuttals and pinched time segments. Probably gone are the separate, distanced lecterns; if the moderators follow the commission’s recommendations, all three will sit at a table. The role of the moderators morphs from referee-timekeeper to participant-interrogator.
The total time is still too short – only 90 minutes – but it’s divided differently: 15 minutes for each of six questions in the first and third presidential sessions. The moderator will ask a question and allow each candidate two minutes to answer. The moderator then will have about 11 minutes – a virtual lifetime in live television – to guide further discussion of the topic. The second debate is, regrettably, a town hall format that does not offer extended discussion time.
The first and third sessions offer the potential for enlightenment, but also the risk of loud, long-lived controversy. This campaign so far has been unusual in its lack of regard for facts. It’s had the usual spin-doctoring, distortion and exaggeration, but also a stunning amount of persistent lying in the face of demonstrated truth. If the candidates persist in that, the burden for producing enlightenment shifts directly onto the moderators: Jim Lehrer of PBS, Candy Crowley of CNN, Bob Schieffer of CBS and, for the vice presidential debate, Martha Raddatz of ABC.
If the candidates persist, the time for diplomacy will be over. Will the moderators be willing to persistently and firmly demand that they prove their lies, or will they invite the opposing candidate to do that heavy lifting? But what if he also lies while doing it?
If any candidate claims to have a viable plan for resolving the debt crisis – most economists agree none does – will the moderator have sufficient grasp of the subject and sufficient courage to challenge him?
If one candidate recycles thoroughly refuted untruths and the other does not, will the moderator set aside concerns about perceived fairness and vigorously pursue the offending candidate without feeling the need to create an artificial balance?
The new format has equal potential for informing voters, enraging partisans and crushing careers. It could be useful and great fun.