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February 22, 2024

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Presidential debates need revision

We are rapidly approaching the quadrennial spectacle that is quintessentially American: the Presidential debates.

In the recent past, they’ve had a somewhat checkered history due to a dearth of in-depth analyses, punctuated by moments of hilarity as well as memorable quotes.

Simply stated, we can do better.

We deserve better. A relatively few changes should be implemented that would improve these debates and make them even more informative and beneficial to the public.

A good source of improvements to our current debate format might be some ideas taken from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Consisting of debates across seven cities in Illinois, the format remained identical for each debate. One candidate spoke for 60 minutes; the other for 90 minutes, and the first was entitled to a 30-minute reply or “rejoinder.”

Now, it’s doubtful a modern candidate would want (or be able) to speak on a topic for 60 minutes, let alone 90. It’s also doubtful the American people, with our ever-decreasing attention spans, could tolerate two hours of continuous political oratory.

But some adaptations of the Lincoln-Douglas format would serve to improve our reincarnation of the political debate.

Depending on the format, our modern Presidential debate could consist of two-minute responses, or five-minute discussions or 90-second closing statements. This is ill-suited for any deep analysis of our present issues.

Today’s problems are monumental and complex. The dollar amounts are in the billions and trillions and the impact of our leaders’ decisions will affect generations yet to come.

To adequately address these problems and inform voters requires adequate response time in a debate, which the present format does not permit.

A one or two minute sound bite does neither the candidate nor the problem any justice.

Also, quite often in our modern debates, the candidate’s response may not always actually answer the question asked. And very few questioners remind candidates that the specific question remained unanswered.

An improvement would be a modification of the Lincoln-Douglas format. Each candidate would be allowed a much longer time to speak on a selected issue – say, 15 to 30 minutes to elaborate on a general topic, with specific questions to follow.

These questions could come from either the moderator or the other candidate.

These general topics would be given in advance to the candidates.

In this way, the candidate would be able to address both the specific topic and any closely related topics with more elaboration.

An additional improvement to the debate format would allow these events to be even more informative: exclude the public from the debate.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but consider the debates’ recent history: all too often, the moderator has had to remind the audience to remain silent and respectful.

This takes time that could be better spent by a candidate or questioner. Presently, the audience does little more than serve as a cheering section for their candidate or against their opponent, which prevents the quiet consideration and reflection of what is being said.

Presidential debates should not be the venue for exciting the party faithful or for conducting a pep rally.

That’s the function of a political convention. Debates are held to explore current issues in-depth and allow candidates to give a hopefully probing analysis of the problems and their recommended solutions.

The Presidential debates can aid and improve that tradition by implementing a few reforms that will enable a fuller expression of views and interrogatories.

Respond to Phil at

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