Tuesday’s presidential debate was pretty depressing. Two guys yelling over each other (three if you count the moderator), some cheap shots about people’s family, and a bunch of unverifiable numbers seemingly pulled from nowhere. Oh, and then there was this moment. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that for a brief moment Americans seemed united around a singular sentiment: this sucks. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang summed it up pretty well when he tweeted, “I think Joe won, but it felt like America lost.”
But what exactly did we lose? Americans are no longer getting what we need from presidential debates. We haven’t for some time. But if we’re going to fix this problem, we need to define what the point of a debate is.
Job Interview, Audition, or Performance?
Theoretically, the debate is supposed to be an opportunity for undecided voters to hear both candidates on the issues so they can determine whose stances are most convincing. However, the vast majority of people who tune into debates today have already decided who they are voting for. We’re tuning in to see if our guy can beat down the other guy, in the hopes of convincing ourselves that the mythical undecides will side with us. The candidates know this. So rather than treating the event like a job interview – which it is – they treat it like a performance.
The goal of the debate, in the current format, is to prove to your party that you can win an election. The point is to prove you can throw out zippy one-liners or embarrass your interlocuter. But this has nothing to do with the job of being president. We’re looking for a Commander-in-Chief, not an Entertainer-in-Chief. It’s not the president’s job to humiliate their political opponents. The president’s job to lead, unify, and make difficult decisions.
What Do We Need From the Presidential Debate
What Americans most need from the presidential debate is the one thing we don’t get: substance. Rather than attempting to entertain their base with one-liners, presidential candidates should be demonstrating their expertise in areas relevant to the job of Commander-in-Chief. (You know, like you do in any job interview.) If President Trump considers himself an expert businessman, he should be laying out a plan for pulling the US out of this recession. This plan should be backed up by facts and citations from experts. If Joe Biden wants to talk about foreign policy, he should outline a theory for doing so. The presidential debates are viewed by citizens across the political spectrum. Even if the candidate can’t change people’s minds, they have the rare opportunity to demonstrate how they really think. “You might think Democrats are all socialists, but in reality my plan is…”
All of this is based on the huge assumption that the candidate in question is capable of making reasoned arguments. They should be. Being president is an incredibly difficult job, and if the person doing it is incapable of a substantive understanding of the issues, they were – to put it bluntly – a bad hire. If we’re continually getting bad hires, we should consider a different interview process.
How About Something Else?
I’d like to propose an alternative: a pre-filmed series of short speeches around given topics. Under this system, candidates would be given a set of questions and would have the opportunity to craft a three-minute speech in response to each one. Prior to airing, candidates will view their opponent’s speeches. They will then film 2-minute rebuttals to their opponent’s arguments. This gives candidates the opportunity to fact-check their opponent, or provide an alternate interpretation of a piece of data. They can reiterate why their original argument is the stronger of the two, then move on.
If this sounds incredibly dull, that’s kind of the point. It shifts the focus away from entertainment value and toward substance. Candidates can’t rely on zingers and showy sound-bite moments, which should never have been the focus in the first place. They are forced to actually make an argument and given the requisite time to do so.
This is just one idea, and I’m sure there are better ones out there. What I’m certain of is that presidential debates as they currently exist don’t work. If you have an idea how we could fix this process, by all means, let’s hear it.