Like tens of millions of Americans, I watched the presidential debate on Wednesday night. Before then, I’d been thinking about how these debates might be structured to better serve voters. Only after the debate did I come up with a solution.
My thinking pre-debate was that the candidates play to the crowd—not only to the TV audience, which is huge, but also to the live audience. It would be difficult not to feed off the energy of people sitting in front of you, people who can be sensed—and heard—if not necessarily seen. Regrettably, playing to the crowd lends itself to bombastic claims and sharp put-downs. The candidates tend to shed far more heat than light.
Wednesday evening’s debate took the live audience out of the picture. Moderator Jim Lehrer ruled that following applause accompanying the candidates’ introductions, the audience could not make any audible responses. The audience followed his instructions.
I’d also had another idea. Have the candidates discuss—rather than debate—the issues with either one moderator or, better yet, two or three. The discussion would take on the aspect of a Charley Rose show with the candidates facing either the moderator or each other but not the camera. This might eliminate grandstanding in front of the TV audience. Wednesday night’s format was not quite the same, but silencing the live audience did keep the debate civil.
Yet a disturbing problem remains. Whatever the format, presidential debates provide a forum for candidates to bend or distort the facts—and more importantly, the truth. Whoever the moderator(s) may be, whatever the questions, the candidates feel entirely free to lie. The debates may give voters a good idea of a candidate’s “presidential demeanor” and the ability to express such traits as “warmth” and “concern.” But they leave us clueless as to whether what a candidate says is actually so. The candidates know they can deceive. They exploit such opportunities with frequency and gusto.
So I propose that all further debates engage the candidates both with one or more moderators and a panel of fact-checkers—on stage or in studio. As in the NFL where a coach may elect to throw a red flag to challenge an official’s call, the candidates will have their own red flags. Hear a fib? Toss a flag.
But wait, as they say in infomercials. That’s not all. Even if the candidates don’t throw a flag, the fact-checkers will. Every statement is up for review. As soon as a candidate utters a blatant falsehood or distortion, a red flag will be tossed into the air. The fact-checkers will then provide the truth to the moderator, who will read a statement of fact or unbiased third-party evaluation to the candidates and the audience.
I like this approach. Because the problem with the debates is that while one candidate or the other often is declared the “winner”—Mitt Romney came out on top in my opinion, at least in terms of style—the American people end up the losers. As constituted, the debates undercut the presentation of clear, understandable policies. And that’s the truth.
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