Three Ideas for Presidential Debates
For some unfathomable reason--maybe bad judgment exacerbated by extreme fatigue--I watched the entire Democratic debate from Las Vegas last night. You probably know all you need to know about it: nobody fucked up too egregiously, Hillary Clinton was deemed "the winner" by virtue of this fact, and CNN did an atrocious job from soup to nuts, punctuated by pushing an absurd and embarrassing question to end the debate and then parading Clinton adviser James Carville as a non-affiliated expert analyst in the painfully inane post-debate "coverage."
But the frustrations of the event itself got me thinking about how to do them better. My ideas are as follows:
1) Let each candidate either moderate a full debate or control the discussion for 20 minutes, asking questions of his/her competitors. This would both give the front-runners a chance to go at each other directly, and allow the candidates farther behind to actually direct the conversation rather than be shoehorned in by the starfucking moderators in a pro forma way, as happened to every one of the candidates aside from Obama, Clinton and to some extent Edwards last night.
2) Set a full-debate time limit on each candidate rather than constantly having the moderator cut them off or, as the execrable Wolf Blitzer did last night, passive-aggressively prompt them to finish by mumbling, "Thank you." Here's one way to set this up: Take the full time available to debate–-say, 110 minutes of the two hours of airtime last night, minus commercials-–subtract a set amount of time for the asking of questions and moderation-–12 minutes, say (this also has the advantage of forcing brevity upon those clueless gasbags)-–and then divide the remainder (98 minutes) among however many candidates are on the stage (seven, last night). In this scenario, they’ve each got 14 minutes available to speak. They can use that 14 minutes however they want–-a long opening harangue, a mix of longer answers and shorter answers, a closing statement, whatever. But once they use it, their mic is cut off.
3) Every candidate has to drink a shot of bourbon every 15 minutes in a two-hour debate, every ten minutes in an hourlong, and only the last half-hour of the debate is available for media clips afterward. Admittedly this probably gives Richardson and Dodd an edge among the current Dems; in Richardson's case, he's a big guy, and Dodd evidently used to party with Ted Kennedy. But there's something to this: to a lesser or greater extent, all these candidates are so tightly wound, so scripted, so cautious. Let's see how they act, what they say, when they're crocked. We've all been drunk; you know that it's not like you become an idiot. You're just sloppier--and in some cases at least, more honest: in vino veritas. Yes, you'd have to run the thing on a time delay because there's candor and then there's the hair-curlingly obscene vitriol I suspect Hillary would fire at Edwards. But that's a small price to pay for such a deeper look at those who would lead our short-attention span democracy.