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Editorial: Time to overhaul the debates

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Posted on October 18, 2012 |
By Angelo Lynn



After watching the second presidential debate, we’re becoming staunch advocates of revamping the way these debates play out as the candidates hit the homestretch. We’re not talking about tinkering with the rules — the silliness over which candidate goes first or other such petty nonsense — but rather overhauling the process so that the public actually learns something about each candidate’s position on the issues and then have them engage in a more serious discussion of their policies.

Here’s an idea: Pick six topics per debate and have the candidates outline their policies in written form prior to the debate. Those policies, or proposals, would be made available online — via the Presidential Debate Commission’s website — and projected on a screen in bullet form during each debate. As each topic is being discussed, a more detailed outline of the candidate’s policies would be projected on the screen (in bullet points) to allow the viewers to see if what the candidates are saying equates with what they have proposed. Hopefully, this would moderate the theatrics and help keep the discussion on topic.

Viewers at home could also pull up the written outlines, as well as more detailed proposals with fuller explanations — all of which would be fact-checked and vetted by the presidential debate commission.

The objective is to make these presidential debates informative and educational, rather than exercises in which the candidates deflect tough questions, drone endlessly on select themes their pollsters have told them they have to emphasize, and lob pointless bombshells at the other candidate.

A case in point is Gov. Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama’s delay in calling the attacks on the American embassy an act of terror, or terrorism, whichever. Seriously, what difference does it make to the nation’s foreign policy if the Obama administration didn’t call the event a terrorist attack until 11 days later? What’s Romney’s point? Does he think he could have prevented the Mid-East uprisings? If so, explain how. And while he’s putting pen to paper on that answer, ask him what mistakes were learned from the Iraq war and if war has helped or hurt America’s status in that region of the world. Ask him how being more confrontational with China (or Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Libya) helps our prospects for progress or prosperity, rather than undermined. These are serious issues that we should understand about the candidates. Whether the president’s team erred in assessing the attacks as “terrorists” or not for a few days makes not one iota of difference to our nation’s safety or international policy.

It was an egregious attack on the nation, and killed four people. The proper response, as the president suggested, is for all Americans to stand in union against a common foe — just as all Americans did after the events of 9-11. Trying to score political points on a “gotcha” moment is unseemly, and yet such moments are what the current debate structure encourages.

We’d even go a bit further and put a silencer on each candidate’s microphone, and give the moderator the control button. Each candidate would be allowed 30 seconds beyond the time allotted per answer, then the moderator would silence the microphone if the candidate continued to speak. Similarly, the moderator could turn off the microphone (perhaps after hitting a loud warning buzzer) if a candidate got off topic or never even tried to answer the moderator’s questions. The loss of time and the missed opportunity to speak to that subject — once ought to do it — should be enough leverage to finally get the candidates to address the tough questions facing the nation.

We’re not holding our breath that any of these suggestions will happen soon — or that these ideas are the correct remedy — but now is the time to press for a sea-change in the current process. The misuse of facts, obvious lies, flip-flopping on issues that had been a mainstay of the campaign only weeks earlier, and snarky attacks that tear at the fabric of our political system do not serve the public well. The commission in charge should seek to do better.

Angelo S. Lynn

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