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October 25, 2014

Why can't debates be more like talk shows?

by Joel Keller, posted Oct 3rd 2008 12:03PM
Vp Debate
Like a large number of Americans, I watched last night's vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden with great interest. And, like most Americans, I was interested in the debate for reasons other than finding out about each ticket's policy views. I wanted to see Palin and Biden screw up. Big time.

Unfortunately (heh), both did fine. Palin spoke in complete sentences that more or less made sense, even if they didn't answer any of Gwen Ifill's questions; Biden didn't ramble on or say that FDR was the president during the stock market crash of 1929. But I don't know if you can attribute this debate's gaffelessness on the poise of the candidates alone. The format of the debate was so restrictive, it didn't give either of them time to go off on screwy tangents.

Wouldn't it have been better if both could just sit in a couple of chairs and speak freely? You know, like on a talk show?

I've never understood why presidential debates aren't conducted this way. Think about it: no time limits, no restrictions as to who can talk. Just two candidates talking issues and responding in a fashion that isn't designed to elicit talking points or sound bites. It would make the candidates look more human and relatable to the American public.

However, over the years, the various presidential campaigns have been afraid that their candidates will hang themselves if given an open forum like this. So in even the more casual-looking town-hall-style debates, there has been time limits and very little in the way of cross-talk between the debaters. Viewers come away just as ill-informed on the candidates and the issues as they were going in, craving a debate where the candidates just talk like people, not quote machines. That's where a talk-show-style debate would help.

There is a precedent to this kind of debate: for years, Meet The Press has been conducting debates between Senate or House candidates in crucial states. The debates were always informative, because Tim Russert always asked his usual pointed questions to each candidate, tried his best to not let any candidate filibuster, and made sure both candidates were heard and could respond to the other. Even the debates during the primaries were in a much looser format, mainly because the sheer number of candidates left little time for one-at-a-time speechifying.

So who would moderate such a debate? Of course, Russert is no longer with us, and a format like this would need a similarly strong moderator (although one of the best of these sort of debates, the 1993 Al Gore / Ross Perot debate on NAFTA, was conducted by Larry King, of all people). Bob mentioned a number of good candidates in his list of his dream debate moderators; if you take the talk show format into account, I'd add folks like Brian Williams, Chuck Todd, Campbell Brown, Matt Lauer, and the entire panel of The View. Hey, don't laugh; they may be annoying, but they asked John McCain more pointed questions in a recent appearance than Jim Lehrer did during the entire first debate.

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GregF

When the mainstream media says Palin did "Fine" Translation: She did better than that. Strong showing by Palin but advantage Biden - funny same opinion of Obama in the first Presidential debate - strong showing Obama - but advantage McCain :-) ---Greg---http://us.imdb.com/name/nm2734923/

October 04 2008 at 2:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul

I watched the American VP debate last night (or the first hour or so, before I got fed up and stopped the recording) and also the Canadian English language leaders' debate. The debate this election took the roundtable approach, which is somewhere in between what you suggest as a "talk show"-style debate and the podium-style format employed in most traditional political debates.

Interestingly enough, even though it was more "informal" in the sense that they were sitting around a table, and talking directly to each other, it was also more like the kind of debate *I* like to see when deciding who to vote for. It's moderated, so each person only gets a specific amount of time to speak when it's their turn, but mostly each participant is given equal amount of time on each topic/question, and is also given the opportunity to respond if someone's record or point is questioned or attacked by another participant.

Here's an example of one of the Canadian debate segments: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfH_jU0fsuc&feature=related

October 04 2008 at 6:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sean Prizzle

Anyone notice how many time Mrs. "bless your heart" Palin said "nucular" instead of nuclear? She must have gone to the George W Bush School of Science (SOS).

There you have the moderator and the Senator you are debating against correctly pronouncing the word and you decide to say it like our often ridiculed President. Why isn't the media covering this? Gosh Darnit and Dang Nabbit!!!

October 03 2008 at 6:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KamenRiderTakoyaki

Roundtable debate? They did that four years ago with Cheney and Edwards. I was scared, I thought that cyborg was going to rip his head off.

October 03 2008 at 5:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Emily

Since neither the Democrats nor the Republicans represent my views I plan on choosing my candidate purely on entertainment value.

I would like to see debates done in a combination of Talkshow/American Idol/Deal or No Deal format.

The candidates would be seated in a Springer like setup with chairs light enough they could lift and swing (if the need arose) and discuss the important topics of the nation.

The US citizen would then be given a website to visit and would rank the answers: +1 for actually answering the question posed; +1 for answering without using worn out cliches; -1 for not answering the question ; -1 for attacking their opponent, etc with a real time running total that we the audience can see at home, but the candidates can't.

If by the end of the debate there is no clear winner we enter Sudden Death/Deal or No Deal style. The candidates are instructed that a suitcase bomb is in the control of one of the rouge nations represented by our 30 models. Instead of the banker, we have the UN butting in to make deals. Whomever captures the right case wins!



October 03 2008 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Adam

This headline was one of the more simple minded things I've reads in awhile. Want to know why debates cant be like talk show? Its because there is way too much a stake to stoop to that level. Even talk shows are like talk shows when they have serious topics to discuss, they usually tone back the loosey goosey tones for a more serious and structured format when they are discussing something important.

Now to address your points, you totally miss the point of debates. I may be so incensed by your comments as a former member of my high school and college debate teams, a government major, and a law student, but it would seem that common sense would dictate that presidential candidates need to address the major issues facing the nation in a very informed manner to adequately give the viewing public a concrete representation of their world view. Almost as important is the need for debates to be very structured. It takes a high level of intellect to even seem coherent when discussing things such as a well though out foreign or economic policy, so it would be no stretch to say that given the opportunity to speak their minds without any restraint, each candidate would probably speak as long as Lincoln and Douglas did in their seminal debates. The problem with this lies in the viewing habits of the American people. Do you think a country that consistently lags behind the rest of the industrialized world in voter turnout cares enough about the election process to watch candidates talk for a half hour clips at a time? The system is set up as it should be, 3-5 minute intervals that allow enough time for speakers to make their point and the audience to comprehend and digest the information given. The system need to be very formal so the viewers understand the stakes of what the candidates are speaking are too important to take a lax attitude. You mentioned that the candidates should look relatable, and I agree to a certain extent. While the candidates shouldn't be taking positions completely foreign to Americans sensibility, they also should not seem like average joes. After all, would you really want an average American running the country? I don't think so.

October 03 2008 at 4:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Adam's comment
scott

Hey Adam, as a former member of high school and college debate teams I was wondering if I could get your opinion.

Were you to make this statement during on of your first answers, what grade would you get ;"And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people" ?

I mean, you're supposed to debate the questions posed by the moderator, correct? Those are kind of the basic rules of debating as I understood them.

October 03 2008 at 5:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Adam

Yep, those are the rules of debating. In High School, there is no moderator, you just address thee argument the affirmative team laid out in their first speech. However, I'm sure the judges would pretty much stop the round if someone flat out stated that they refused to answer the affirmatiive's argument.

October 03 2008 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mike

I'd be happy if just once, on ANY news show, they stopped the candidate and said "that's all well and good, now how about answering my question." That and I wished they'd all do what The Daily Show does with digging up clips, sometimes only a day old, where the politician contradicts him/herself. If we could manage to get a debate where both happened then maybe we'd really learn something new about the candidates. As it is, the debates are 90min long commercials where the candidate doesn't stray too far from their official talking points.

October 03 2008 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
WATCH US EXPLODE

Mildly entertaining political theatre. I had my hand in my bag of popcorn the entire time, laughing at how false the entire thing felt. These "debates" are pointless. Biden completely ignored Palin and went right after McCain. Palin looked like she was just reciting facts and figures she'd crammed in previous nights. She read right off her notes more than a few times.

It was all just silly and pretentious, hence my laughter.

October 03 2008 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
khia213

This is why I miss the Phil Donahue show. Back in the day, Phil would have guests on and he would just sit and talk with them. He was warm and fuzzy but he was all about getting a straight answer to his questions. He wasn't afraid of his guests and amazingly, the guests weren't afraid of him. In his way, he was like Tim Russert. He listened to the guest and even if he disagreed, at the end of the show there was civility and respect.

In today's political climate, where it's all about managing the politician's image, that kind of free flowing chat isn't going to happen. Everyone has a list of what they will and won't talk about. It's sad.

A big part of the problem last night was that the terms of the debate were negotiated by the political teams. That's why there were no follow up questions and no challenge on the facts by the moderator.

October 03 2008 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nick

Joel, you should look into the history of the Commission on Presidential Debates to help understand why the debates are done they way they are. The format is carefully constructed by the Democrats and Republicans to provide a format to explain their views to a large number of people IN THE GUISE of an actual debate about the validity of those views. They restrict thrid parties and alternative points of view (including moderators abilities to call them out on glaring inconsistencies in their policies) to prevent meaningful political discussion and keep the major two parties in control.

Sorry, if it sounds ranty. This is about as mild I can get on this subject...

October 03 2008 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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