A Matter of Debate

Next Wednesday, October 3, is the first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  It and the two others later in the month will determine who wins the election.  We know this to be true, because people on television have said so ever since the conventions ended—conventions that, themselves, were also going to determine who wins the election.  Along with Romney’s vice presidential selection.  And the economy.  And Libya.

If all else fails, maybe we’ll just try voting.

I have to level with you:  I did not watch the Republican primary debates early in the year.  However enlightening the prospect of nine people deliberating the world’s problems in 90 minutes might have looked on paper, I somehow found them a slight waste of time.

One-on-one debates, for all their faults, at least offer the possibility of an actual, coherent argument to break out.  We get to see our candidates forced to think on their feet and speak not only in complete sentences, but in complete thoughts.

But about those faults.

Despite all the would-be tweaking the modern-day presidential debate has undergone in the last many election cycles, the final product never seems to improve.  Griping runs the spectrum:  Some complain the candidates are not given enough time to speak, while others insist they are given too much.  Some would like to see more genuine interaction between the two speakers; others prefer monologues.

The problem nearly everyone seems to agree upon—and rightfully so—is the ease with which the contestants manage to evade and subvert the truth.  With barely enough time for the candidates to speak, there certainly isn’t a moment for the moderator to call “bull.”

On this point, there is one way to improve the format that is so obvious, it has never even been considered:  Fact-checking in real time.

By now everyone is familiar with “fact checkers.”  They are the folks on television and especially the Internet who take it upon themselves to find out, through basic research, whether the things that politicians say are actually true.  In our parents’ day, these people were known as “journalists.”

 Today’s fact checkers became famous for their meticulous rebukes of various claims by the Romney and Obama campaigns, particularly during the conventions.  No doubt they will be kept very busy—as they have in years past—during the debates, afterwards assessing which candidates told the biggest whoppers and fudged the numbers the most.

Why can’t we hire these sleuths to work the room while the event is still going on?

The conundrum, as it now stands, is that most Americans turn off and tune out by the time the analysts roll onto the screen.  They see the candidates’ claims, but not the information that disproves the claims.  And so we are left with a voting public that is highly misinformed about the facts, in ways that are not entirely its own fault.

The proper manner of regulating, then, is for a line of quick-fingered researchers to be sitting alongside the moderator, computers at the ready.  Every time a candidate says something that is empirically untrue or misleading, a red light will flash and the debate will grind to a halt as the record is corrected.  The speaker will not be allowed to continue his thought until he acknowledges the truth.

Presumably, this would make for terrible television, and will therefore never be tried.  Nor would I expect either campaign to agree to a format that all but guarantees its candidate will be humiliated.  Indeed, the newest innovation to this year’s series is quite the opposite:  Both men will be informed of the topics of discussion in advance, effectively making unpredictability impossible.  Isn’t that always how it goes?

Newt Gingrich, for his part, has suggested returning to the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  Those proceeded as follows:  One man would speak, uninterrupted, for 60 minutes straight.  Then the other candidate would offer a 90-minute rebuttal, followed by a 30-minute closer from the first guy.

To transplant that into today’s world…well, I can only think of the rule of thumb from Christopher Hitchens, “One has to be a spellbinding person to speak for more than half an hour.  And if one is spellbinding, one doesn’t really need the half-hour.”

On the other hand, three hours of near-continuous talking would sure resolve the issue of evasiveness.  If a 90-minute soliloquy does not give the viewing public a sufficient impression of a candidate’s mettle, his character and his command of the issues at stake, then the real problem is not the candidates or the networks, but those poor souls on the other end of the TV screen.

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