There’s no pleasant way to say this: televised presidential debates are terrible. No TV network really gets it right. I haven’t seen a single debate in my lifetime where I didn’t find myself thinking the network’s decisions had made it worse. But televised presidential debates don’t have to suck as hard as they suck today, so here are a few ideas to make them suck a whole lot less!
Let Every Legitimate Candidate Debate
Choosing who gets to participate in a political debate shouldn’t be… well… political. Networks always come up with guidelines for who gets to take part in a debate, only to then ignore those guidelines completely and snub the candidates they feel are undeserving of participation in that debate.
Take, for instance, CNN’s upcoming democratic primary debate. CNN announced last week that they’ll be keeping a debate podium open for Vice President Joe Biden, who can opt to join the debate anytime between now and October 13th, when the debate airs. Biden hasn’t declared his candidacy and has repeatedly hinted that he might not run at all. Meanwhile, Lawrence Lessig, a legitimate presidential candidate, is trying desperately to get on that stage and debate his rival primary opponents. Lessig might not have big numbers, but the DNC refuses to include him in polls, and the rare polls Lessig does get named in have him polling stronger than Lincoln Chaffee or Jim Webb. CNN should give that podium to Mr. Lessig, but they won’t, because CNN sucks big time.
Networks always screw over various candidates by refusing to allow them to debate. Today it’s Lawrence Lessig. In 2012, it was Buddy Roehmer. The Green Party and other third parties always get the shaft, too. Not only is this not fair to these candidates, but it limits the options made available to voters.
Simplify The Debate Rules
The rules these networks come up with for debates are more confusing than the rules in a game of cricket. A bowler? What? I thought this game was like baseball! I don’t even see any pins on the field! What the actual crap is a bowler?!
Debate rules never make any sense. Each candidate will have two minutes to answer the question, with each other candidate getting one minute for a rebuttal, unless that candidate’s eldest second-cousin has fewer than four letters in their first name, in which case said candidate must amend the last answer they gave with another question directed at the candidate with the most Twitter followers gained since the previous Wednesday, but only if they haven’t watched a cat video in the past twenty-four hours, in which case…
Here’s a better system: just shut the hell up and let the candidates debate. The moderator asks a question. The candidates get to answer it. If they start going off into other subjects, the moderator reigns them back in. If neither candidate is saying anything of substance, the moderator can tell them to get on point, or skip to the next question. See? This shouldn’t be as complicated as you’re making it, TV news executives.
Fact-Check The Candidates Live
During the debate, every claim made by the candidates should be fact-checked by a non-partisan panel of experts. Facts can appear in blurbs on the screen in real-time, and the moderator can be told whenever a candidate makes something up, so they can call them out on live television. Want to see how honest politicians suddenly become when someone is calling them on their BS live and on the spot?
Focus On Meaningful Questions
I don’t care what a presidential candidate’s favorite food is, or what they want their Secret Service name to be, or what they think about the other candidates. I want to hear them explain their views on income inequality, what they’ll do to help protect the environment, and what their position is on dealing with Iran’s nuclear push. I want to know if a candidate can point out Uganda on a map of Africa. I want to know if they can name the third amendment (you’d be astonished to learn how many Americans can’t). There are real things happening in the real world, and debates should help me decide which candidate will tackle those issues in the best way. We aren’t quite at the point yet where presidential elections are determined the same way American Idol contestants win or lose. We should try to at least procrastinate in getting there.
Stop Filling The Screen With Gibberish
There are a few dozen other things I’d love to suggest here, but this article is already getting a bit long, so instead I’ll leave you with this: stop filling up my TV screen with nonsense. Apart from fact-checking blurbs, the only thing I should see on the screen during a debate is the debate itself. Don’t show me real-time reactions from liberals, conservatives, and independents. Put that stuff in an app that we can view optionally alongside the debate. People like me want to see that, but most viewers don’t.
And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the huge quarter-screen advertisements for your other, not-really-news shows or specials. If you really must advertise that stuff, do it small and in a way that isn’t stealing attention from the actual debate. Presidential debates should be aired as a service to voters, not as a service to your own network.