Presidential Debates–The Ridiculousness of It All–by Stephen G. Harding

So you want to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States? No problem. Just make sure that at least 2% of the American voting public is in your corner, as sourced through a composite of four qualified polls, and your so-called grass-root donors number at least 130,000; 400 of them need to be “Unique” and come from at least twenty states. Anyone care to hazard a guess what the DNC means by unique? 

If you make these numbers, congratulations, you made it to the next round of Democratic debates. You now will be given 75 seconds to respond to moderator directed questions, and 45 seconds for responses and rebuttals. What on earth are you going to do with that added 15 seconds? Colored lights at your individualized podium will be used to help you manage your remaining response times: 15 seconds = yellow; 5 seconds = flashing red; no time remaining = solid red. If you attack another candidate, by name, he or she will be given 30 seconds to respond. But remember it does work both ways. If you or your competitors consistently interrupt, the perpetrator will have his or her time reduced. Questions posed by the moderators will appear on the bottom of the screen for those watching at home.  There will be no show of hands or one-word, down-the-line questions. Got it? There is one more thing. The moderators reserve the right to ignore, interrupt, talk-over and pit candidates against one another at anytime during the program’s allotted two hours. Respites only come when you hear: “And now a word from our sponsors.”

What a way to pick a presidential candidate especially so early in the process. When did this song and dance routine take center stage? By the way, these are not really debates. They’re beauty contests, absent the runway, sashes, baton twirling and wardrobe changes.  The questions are even similarYou have a minute to explain: “How will you bring about world peace? Taking half of your time by repeating the question, you need to be able to think fast, answer clearly, concisely, and speak with conviction.  Questions in the form of curves, sliders, and knucklers are to be expected. Be careful of the high and inside change-up. It usually comes after two fast ones low and just a bit outside.

In its entirety, this has to be the worst interview process ever devised. After all, aren’t the American people supposed to be assessing the contenders for the nations top job?  Sure we are; it’s easy. Tell us all you know about everything in 60 seconds or less. (We will give you another 15 seconds if you get long winded). You will mostly be evaluated on your vocal and, theoretically, mental acuity. Don’t get sidetracked on substantive answers. There’s no time. Most of the audience will be arguing about the questions let alone the answers. When in doubt, resort to quick quips and jabs. There is nothing like a well-timed one line zinger to remember you by. Given the ridiculousness of it all, your responses will more than likely be evaluated in terms of your intonation skills and the cadence of your flailing arms. Gratuitous patriotism usually earns bonus points. However, protracted pontifications will not be permitted. This isn’t democracy in action. It’s qualifying for a game show. It’s the political version of reality TV.

Presidential Candidates–Come on Down

It’s analogues to lining up outside the CBS studios to get on Let’s Make a Deal.  One only needs to stand out by emulating some form of theatrics. If selected you’ll actually meet Wayne Grady. Emotional exuberance and other’s people’s money got you to the stage. But which stage? You’re not getting the chance to spin the wheel, take the cash or find out what’s behind the curtain. Oh no. You actually made it onto another stage, the Jeopardy stage. You got in the wrong line numb nuts. You’re not dealing with lighthearted Wayne Grady. You’re dealing with no-nonsense Alex Trebek.  It’s a buzzer filled winner take all proposition. There’s nothing superficial here.  You just need to learn how to answer a question with a question.  Wait, you’re a politician.  You already know how to do that. 

By comparison, the debates may be characterized as the composite doppelganger to Let’s Make a Deal, Jeopardy and The Price Is Right. Such an amalgamation of thought would require a new set of moderators. By default I would recommend Wayne, Alex and Drew Carey. The next debate may even harken back to a reasonable fact simile of Whose Line Is It Anyway. Let Bernie and Elizabeth argue about that one. We just need to convince Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles to throw their hats into the ring.

But let’s move on to a potential structural modification to the debate process. If the procedure really does mimic a game show, maybe the political parties and the media need to take at least one cue from Jeopardy’s producers. How about installing the hand-held buzzer at each candidate’s podium? They already have to watch a series of lights go from yellow to both flashing and solid red. What’s one more distraction? After all, they are expected to be multitaskers aren’t they? Candidates could now be evaluated for their dexterity and thumb speed. Now we’re talking about real qualifications. We may need to devise a handicap for those with arthritis of the carpo-metacarpal joint. If nothing else, the process would certainly be more orderly.  It may even add a source to political fundraising.  I’ll take Political Correctness of the 1970’s for $1,000.

 Who Benefits From the Debates?

That’s right who, or is it whom?  Let’s hazard a guess. I would say the media and then the respective sponsoring political party. The most recognizable candidates best at speaking on their feet come in third. The remnants of the field look like deer in the headlights trying to avoid becoming political road kill. Donors are busy reassessing their bets.  As for us, we mostly spend our time rolling our eyes, not absorbing any new epiphanies that would remotely change our preconceived notions. Our time might be better spent watching the real Jeopardy. At least we would learn something. They do come on at the same time don’t they? 

The debate process itself rarely brings out the best in anyone, even the viewers at home. Facebook and twitter postings voting candidates off the Island commence almost immediately. Participants appearing less lucid are fair game. For those of us suffering from attention deficit disorder, we mostly remember the one-liners. After all, they are the mother’s milk for pundits and late night comedians. Debates may serve as an evaluative tool for assessing one’s oratory ability or the capacity to defend a particular position. It is questionable as to their utility in evaluating the ability to function as the President of the United States. As such, I would highly recommend watching the following six-minute piece from a recent episode of the Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. His commentary is about the debates themselves and how they do relatively nothing to inform the public as to the qualifications, policies and positions of the presidential field.  But more importantly, debates evaluate the wrong ability. Of all the skills sets necessary to effectively occupy the oval office being an effective debater is not one of them. O’Donnell’s analysis is NOT about blue or red, left or right, or conservative or liberal.  It is about the process.  Everyone striving to be better citizens would do well to take the roughly 360+ seconds to view this segment. 

There Has to Be a Better Way

The current system does little to inform the public as to the qualifications of would be candidates. With the indirect support of the media, it is really about culling the field down to the few that are acceptable to the party elite.  This has become the bottom line for the nation’s two party system. So how to better inform the public is really the issue. 

At least one tried and true process is not complicated. Time-consuming yes, but not complicated. Instead of debates let’s go back to what local governments have conducted for years, the Candidate’s Forum. But instead of a panel interviewing all of the candidates for public office collectively, what about interviewing them individually?

The panel would consist of three to five members. Candidates would get the questions in advance. Interviews would be for one hour. Potential questions would pertain to each candidate’s:

  • Fiscal, economic, and managerial background;
  • Preparation that is pertinent to becoming President of the United States;
  • Position on the prominent issues facing the nation and the planet;
  • Programmatic and policy priorities and solutions;
  • Knowledge of domestic affairs;
  • Knowledge of international affairs;
  • Experience with the legislative process; and
  • Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and the country’s judicial system.

This is just a framework for potential questions. A final list would not be modified and would uniformly be asked of every candidate. Each interview would be filmed and recorded but not released until all interviews had been conducted.  As a public service, all media sources would be required to run the videos, or provide an actual written transcription, of each interview.  Given a field of 20+ candidates this method would take quite awhile. However, and as a starting point, the nation would at least have a common basis for evaluation.  It’s not like we have a short primary season.

To be remotely effective, such a process would require a respected and acceptable team of interviewers. More importantly, the process would require a civically engaged electorate. Getting citizens to understand their responsibility as citizens has become somewhat of a chore. Engagement will require the utilization of all forms of media and a personalized outreach campaign. As a civic responsibility, the process itself would be at the expense of the respective political parties. Let the solicitations from donors commence after the videos have been released to the public, and before the individual State primaries. 

If the nation still continues with its tradition of debates, let it happen once the pool of candidates is down to the top two from each party.  Let the “Final Four” debate issues, policies, programs and priorities. At least when it finally gets to this level, the process will be theoretically manageable and, if we as citizens have put any effort into our civic responsibilities at all, we should have a better understanding of not only the issues but the presidential capability of those still standing. Time is a wasting, we have a lot of videos to watch.

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