Until about three weeks ago, most Americans had never seen Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in a room together. That’s what made the prospect of their debates so exciting: After months of posturing, spinning, and sniping from afar, the two rivals would finally go toe-to-toe, stepping into the ring without a protective shield of advisers.
What actually happened when the candidates met, of course, was more posturing, spinning, and sniping, which is more or less how it goes every election year. Even in their best moments—and there are always a few—presidential debates end up telling us very little about the things we really need to know about our leaders. A president needs to make painful decisions under pressure, negotiate with those who disagree with him, find creative ways through seemingly intractable problems, and delegate with ruthless efficiency. Instead what we learn is how good the candidates are at redeploying their political talking points, or in some cases inventing new ones on the fly.
Presidential debates might seem to have a long, distinguished history in America, harking back to 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, competing for a Senate seat in Illinois, argued deeply and thoughtfully over the most important issues of the day. But the debates we see today are, in fact, almost entirely a product of the TV age—born in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in Chicago for a televised back-and-forth that was seen by almost 70 million people, and little changed since then.
Today we still fall back on the same old format: two people in a room, taking turns answering questions and hardly ever addressing each other directly. It’s hard to imagine this is the best we can come up with. The debates are—or should be—crucial to our democracy, virtually the only time the candidates appear unscripted before the American people. If we were to design them with only the voters in mind, as opposed to bowing to the demands of campaign officials seeking to protect their candidates from spontaneity, what could we do differently? Ideas asked experts in a variety of fields—from political science to psychology to mixed martial arts—to pretend they were in charge of staging the next confrontation between Romney and Obama, and asked them to imagine what a genuinely useful American presidential showdown might look like.
One of the most widely noted problems with the traditional debate format is that the candidates tend not to be penalized for stretching the truth or even lying outright. Last week moderator Candy Crowley drew immense flak for injecting a quick correction into the debate about whether the president had called the Libyan embassy attack an act of terror. According to Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, this is precisely what debates need more of. “Disregard for the facts, whether it comes from naked dishonesty or exploiting the gray areas of truthiness” could be reduced considerably with the introduction of real-time fact-checkers—“Pants-on-Fire-Fighters,” Pinker calls them—who could provide a sort of “instant replay” during the debate and point out misstatements as they are uttered. “In my fantasy, the candidates would respond,” Pinker wrote in an e-mail. “Not only would it be fair, but viewers and candidates alike would take the fact-checking more seriously.”
The fact-checking that does happen now—with news outlets chewing over everything the candidates say—doesn’t have the same effect as live interruptions would, according to Swarthmore College political scientist Benjamin Berger, author of the book “Attention Deficit Democracy: The Paradox of Civic Engagement.” The way debates are set up now, Berger points out, candidates don’t really have to worry about the consequences of lying, because the emotional points they score in the moment are unlikely to be erased even if some voters find out later they stretched the truth. If candidates are called out on the spot, that process might be disrupted. “There’s a strong emotion people have of not liking to be played for fools,” Berger said.
STRESS THEM OUT
Debates today are a quiet affair: The candidates speak to an all-but-silent room, while the moderator tries to prevent them from interrupting each other. According to a leaked agreement between the two campaigns that was published last week by Time Magazine, the candidates aren’t even allowed to ask each other direct questions. Needless to say, this is not how the world really works: Decisions are made under stress, with lots of competing voices clamoring for the boss’s attention.Continued...