Fixing Political Debates — The Baltimore Sun

 –Richard E. Vatz

A better debate [Commentary]

To make debates more useful (and tolerable) for the watchers, a few rules are in order

By Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg
6:00 AM EDT, June 15, 2014

Watching political debates — local, regional and national — the keen observer will note that they are like baseball stadiums: tailored for the advantage of a few, with parameters sometimes varying wildly to satisfy certain politicians, citizens, media outlets, etc.

It is not an exaggeration to say that no format has ever satisfied all observers, and some of them satisfy very few. Some of the complaints are: there are too many or too few debates for a primary or general election; they are too long or too short; there is too much or too little restriction on time for answers; there is over or under involvement of moderators; there are too many candidates or too many candidates are excluded, and so on.

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Some even complain, although this is less articulated as debates have become an accepted part of the political landscape, that debating is not a valid method by which to evaluate candidates; being quick on your feet in answering limited questions does not predict prudent governing.

True enough; political debates are not an unalloyed good, despite the fact that in recent years even odds-on favorites have felt the pressure or just a democratic need to debate. Maryland U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger always debates if his opponent wishes to, but there is nothing race-wise to be gained by him in doing so. Decades ago, though, front runners would not have given their opponents the stage, especially if doing so would make a relative unknown appear to be a sufficiently significant figure who would then have a chance for victory.

In 1960, Richard Nixon made the political mistake of his life when the vice president debated on national television with 43-year-old John F. Kennedy, a relatively unknown Massachusetts senator.

Still, with the new presumption in favor of political debating in all major (and many minor) races and also assuming the value of debates for the electorate to make wise voting decisions, herein please find some suggestions for future debates, for both primary and general elections:

•Debates should be limited to candidates with 15 percent or more support in the public opinion polls. Yes, this can be arbitrary and a problem when someone a few points below that mark appears to be making a move, but to allow anyone and everyone in who wants to participate dilutes discussion significantly and disallows serious policy discussion. Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote, was a major candidate in 1992 and perhaps changed that election’s results. Don’t like that? We didn’t. Too bad — it was good for democracy.

•Moderators should be punctiliously neutral, to the point of not questioning factual representations of debate participants whatsoever; that is the job of the other debaters. In the 2012 CNN presidential debate, Candy Crowley singularly disputed Gov. Mitt Romney’s claim that President Barack Obama did not initially say the attack in Benghazi constituted “terrorism.” In doing so, she unfairly flummoxed the surprised challenger and strengthened for herself and CNN a reputation for political bias.

•Debate organizers should arrange at least two, but no more than three, debates of an hour each on electronic media. No candidate may speak for more than 90 seconds per question, including allowing for one follow-up by each. We have never seen a debate that required more than an hour. As a debate goes on, diminishing returns always creep in.

•Have audience members — who must not be allowed to cheer or else they will be removed — submit questions in writing. There is no informational advantage to giving a publicity-hungry member of the audience a chance to argue with a candidate. In addition, a fair moderator can edit a question to the advantage of a good substantive inquiry.

•Finally, a substantive bit of advice to accompany the advisories above: When candidates make spending or taxing recommendations, they should include — or their opponents should demand — answers to the following questions:

a. What will this cost, and who will pay for it?
b. What is the likelihood that you will get necessary support for this initiative?
c. What evidence exists that the expenditure will have the result(s) you predict?
d. By when do you expect to see the results?
e. Will you retract public spending if the results are not produced?

We often wonder if the public realizes that there is minimal disagreement on outcomes in politics — only, or mostly, on how to reach those outcomes.
These recommendations would make for better issue exchanges and would also create more equitable and democratic political persuasion.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion” (Kendall Hunt, 2013); his email is Lee S. Weinberg is an associate professor within the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His email is

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