Time For A New Debate Format

Kish suggested we watch last night’s Republican debate.  Against my better judgment, I agreed.  I should have heeded my judgment, I think.

I’m not a fan of these sprawling debates for a lot of reasons, but the first one hit me as soon as the debate began:  I just don’t like the idea of the moderators picking one person to answer a question about a given topic, and I don’t like the candidates’ ability to not answer the question.  So when the moderator began the debate by asking Ted Cruz about the economy (why Cruz?) and Cruz launched instead into an obviously prepared speech about the ten American sailors captured by Iran, it set my teeth to grinding immediately.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Myrtle BeachThis is a format destined for disaster on a stage with seven candidates hoping to get air time.  At first the candidates act politely and hold their fire as one of their competitors gets to address a juicy topic, but eventually they can’t help themselves and start talking very loudly so that they get to weigh in and get their faces on TV again.  There’s no meaningful way to discipline candidates who go off topic, either.  What are you going to do, tell one of them that they don’t get to respond for the rest of the debate because they didn’t answer a question?  If that rule had been applied last night, basically every candidate would have been silenced long before the debate’s official end.

If I had my choice, you’d start one of these pre-primary debates with opening statements by each of the candidates, so they could vent their canned speeches and you’d at learn about whatever topics were of most importance to them.  I’d establish the order by picking names out of a hat.  Then, once those preliminaries are out of the way, ask a question about a topic and have each candidate respond to the same question.  So long as the question dealt with an important topic, and was not of the “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you want to be” variety, the candidates themselves would discipline each other to stick to the subject, the way Chris Christie did last night when neither Cruz nor Rubio answered a question about entitlements.  You couldn’t blow off an important topic without the next person in line immediately criticizing you for dodging it.

And I suppose time-limit buzzers are inevitable, especially when seven politicians are on one stage, but they give the debates an unfortunate game show quality.  And, as a candidate’s answer proceeds, I find myself anticipating the buzzer rather than paying much attention to the latter part of the candidate’s response.  The candidates blow right through the buzzers, anyway.  I’d rather have the moderator politely tell the candidate that their time has expired.

Who won last night’s debate?  Beats me.  I thought Trump really zinged Cruz on Cruz’s ill-advised dismissal of “New York values,” recalling how New Yorkers pulled together and moved forward after 9/11 and leaving Cruz to do nothing but keep a frozen smile on his face and no doubt think, inwardly, that he had just taken a self-inflicted wound.   I don’t think those kinds of point-scoring exchanges ultimately mean much in a multi-candidate field, but I do think that, with all the problems we are facing, we don’t need politicians who make cheap appeals to regionalism and pit one part of the country against another.  I was glad to see Cruz take a haymaker.

As for the rest of the debate, Trump obviously has no real substance behind the catch phrases and bloviating, but the other candidates can’t quite figure out how to deal with him.  It’s like they’re trying to climb over each other while hoping that some day, somebody will vote Trump off the island, while Trump stands at the center stage lectern, scowling.  They can’t figure out why people are going for Trump and I can’t, either.

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