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What's Wrong With the Presidential Debates? (Updated 10/22)

Photo by Eija. Flickr - Creative Commons
Every four years, I look forward to two things: the Summer Olympics and the U.S. Presidential campaign. They both have more in common than one would think at a glance: in both cases, most people only pay attention to the prime-time events but there's a wide range of preliminaries that die-hards pay attention to. Since I ran track and was a political science major, I'm one of the small subset of die-hards for both. One thing that the IOC does on a regular basis is add and remove Olympic events and it might be time to do the same with our presidential debate system. (And no, I'm not thinking of adding rhythmic gymnastics - we already have enough rhetorical gymnastics as it is.)

The presidential debates are entertaining, but after you get past the body language, zingers, attacks and rebuttals, it can be hard to find answers to the real policy questions.  This past Tuesday was the last debate with domestic policy as part of the focus, and over the three presidential and vice presidential debates, we didn't hear much about housing, transportation or other policies that can help create more livable communities.  We also didn't hear much about the issues facing low-income people.

Those of you that follow me on twitter or facebook have seen some of my comments throughout the campaign season. The tone of the campaigns early on and the general lack of detail on policies have been frustrating at times, and I had great hopes that the debates would delve into some of the important issues so that voters could see where the candidates stand.

These omissions were a disappointment for me, but not surprising. Yes, I would love to hear more about the candidate's philosophies on housing trust funds, the proper role for government in ensuring that housing is affordable, or their opinions on limiting foreclosure mitigation programs and what that means for the impact of mass foreclosures on communities, but I realize that I am part of a relatively small group that would pay attention to those specific policy issues. That being said, the general topic of housing was notably missing from the town hall debate - millions of people are impacted by housing issues, and I am sure that others wanted to hear about those issues as well.

After reflecting on it, what we missed even more than hearing about those specific issues was a better context for policies as they are debated. We didn't hear much about neighborhoods, communities, or even states. There was one brief mention of Chicago and some of the issues in that city, but when Detroit, Iowa and North Dakota were mentioned, it was only as locations of industry, not as places where people live.  These places are where we see the combined impacts of policies that are implemented at every level, and most (if not all) domestic policies have some impact on communities.  I'd love to hear more about the impacts of policies on place.

photo by Cory M Grenier /Flickr - Creative Commons
 Politicians have become skilled at talking about the impacts of policies on individuals that they have met and those anecdotes are often powerful. We also hear a great deal about the impacts on the middle class, since the vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be in the middle class (91% when the middle class segments are combined in this recent national survey.)  Measures of income tell a different story: there are low-income people, declining towns and struggling regions that need to hear how policies would impact them.  One need only look at the Washington, DC region to see that even in a relatively high income metropolitan area, great disparities in income and wealth mean that different communities of people can exist blocks away from one another.  It's not hard to imagine that they may have different perspectives on a range of issues. On a larger scale, states that have been hard hit by foreclosures or housing affordability issues (see AARP's report on state-by-state-housing conditions) may have a different perspective on the housing crisis and whether we are in a recovery yet.  We live in "one nation indivisible," but national policies rarely have a single, universal impact.  My issue is not only with the lack of discussion of impacts on different places, but also with the minimal discussion of impacts on  different people.

The presidential candidates must discuss national policies and issues, but I would prefer to hear more about the impact on the future and the places where we live.  I am fully aware that arguing for more complexity is rarely a winning argument, but I will hold fast to the belief that there are others who would like to hear more. We can't hear every detail or consideration on every policy, but I have a solution: we could mix in a new format: a 90-minute debate on a single issue so that we could see how the candidates think and how they process the policy options and impacts of their chosen policies.

The issue could be mutually agreed upon and would have to be an important issue of the day, and afterwards, we would be clear on their position on that particular issue, but we would also know more about how the candidates thought, how they looked at the impacts of policies, how well they understood the implications of their proposals and what their priorities were. If we could get that accomplished, I wouldn't mind if one of my core issues wasn't the topic.  I'm thinking of this as a Lincoln-Douglas format for a modern age, and we could add a single-issue debate into the mix of formats (general domestic policy, general foreign policy and a town hall that covers everything.)  I'm not sure if TV ratings would spike, but I'm guessing that it would be hard to be confused about a candidate's philosophy, vision or fitness for office after that debate.

The 2012 debates close with a general foreign policy debate next week, and I will be watching. There will undoubtedly be some fireworks, and if we are lucky, we might find out something about the candidates that we don't already know.  Don't forget to vote everyone - election day is Tuesday, November 6.

Update 10/22/2012:  Research has revealed that something similar has happened once, though on a relatively small scale.  On May 17, 1948, Republicans Thomas Dewey (New York Governor) and Harold Stassen, (Former Minnesota Governor) had a debate before the Oregon primary.  The topic was whether the Communist Party should be outlawed, and the debate was broadcast on radio.  Each candidate had twenty minute opening statements and there were eight and a half minutes for each to offer rebuttals. Since CNN was not around, there are no insta-poll results to tell us who "won the debate." (As some of us remember from history class, that election was not a high point for polling techniques - Dewey won the Republican nomination and was a favorite over President Truman, but lost in an upset.)  It appears to be the first time that Presidential candidates ever had a debate and the format has never been repeated.  After 64 years, it is probably time to revisit. 

The follow-up to this post is "What's (still) Wrong with Debates: Reaction to the Third Presidential Debate" 

What do you think? Would you watch the candidates have a no-holds-barred 90-minute debate to get to the bottom of an issue?  Comments are welcome below and on twitter and facebook.


  1. This piece should be read nationally. As a first time voter, I feel entire unprepared for this task. I am actually quite tired of the bashing and would welcome an honest one topic debateto really get a feel for their thinking. All I have gathered so far is that both main candidates will hold their own in a catfight.

  2. Thanks for the comment - I appreciate your sentiment. I hope that last night's debate gave you enough information to make a decision. I just wrote a new piece about it - "What's (still) Wrong with Debates"


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