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After months of stasis in the 2012 presidential race, expectations are high for tonight’s debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the first of three match-ups set to take place between now and Election Day.But despite the hype, there’s a very good chance that tonight’s debate will actually be pretty boring. Neither Obama nor Romney are known for having dynamic sparring skills, and the highly-formatted structure is designed to limit fireworks and embarrassments.
In fact, since presidential debates first started being televised in 1960, they have had marginal effect on the outcome of any race. Campaigns now view the debates more as an opportunity to put their candidate in front of millions of American television viewers than as a chance to make substantive arguments about their policies.
This is likely to get even worse tonight. For the first time ever, the Presidential Debate Commission, which runs the show, gave the candidates a list of the topics that will come up in the first debate, virtually ensuring that nothing unexpected goes down. The result will almost inevitably be another debate without any actual debate.
But all that could change with just a few changes to shake up the format and inject some uncertainty into the ritual. Here, we’ve come up with some suggestions of ways to keep the candidates on their toes and help us all have a lot more fun.
Ostensibly, presidential campaigns are extended job interviews, and the debates are really just the last round. So it makes sense to take a page out of the private sector, and ask candidates some of the mind-benders that job applicants face at the nation's top companies.
Here are some examples, pulled straight from the Wall Street playbooks:
- What line on your resume is the most fake?
- What's the outlook for U.S. cucumber prices for this year?
- If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?
- Disaster is about to strike the city of San Francisco. How long would it take you to evacuate the entire city?
- Are you trying to screw us over?
We would also include a lightning round with questions like:
- If you were a fruit, what kind of tree would you be?
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
- What is the worst book you ever read?
- What is the average price of a gallon of milk in the U.S. today?
The biggest problem with the current debate format is that the style of questioning makes it easy for candidates to give canned responses, and skip over questions they don't like.
An easy way to fix that is to change the questions. Rather than broaching general topics like how to 'save Social Security' or 'stop the Iranian threat,' moderators should force the candidates to say how they would respond to specific situations that could arise during their time in office.
'Ratings agencies are warning that they are going to downgrade the U.S. if Congress doesn't pass a budget within the next two months. What are the specific steps you take in the first week to work out a deal with Congressional leadership?'
'A bomb just went off at the intersection of the I-405 and I-10 freeways in Los Angeles. Intelligence indicates that Islamist terrorists were involved, but the group's nationality and affiliations are not yet known. What are the first three things you do?'
And here's a particularly provocative one, posed during a recent focus group of female swing voters in suburban Virginia: 'Your wife has been raped. Do you allow her to have an abortion?'
A big criticism of the current debate format is that the Commission selects moderators with a liberal bias -- for example, PBS News host Jim Lehrer, who is moderating tonight. A good way to solve that would be to have two moderators, one selected by each candidate.
Pundit debates are already happening without the presidential candidates -- like Jon Stewart vs. Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck vs. Elliot Spitzer -- and have been successful in bringing together audiences from across the political spectrum. In addition to injecting life into the presidential debates, adopting this format would boost ratings, exposing the candidates to a broader array of voters.
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas came up with this suggestion, and we think it's a great idea. (Plus, we can think of at least one guy who would be happy to take on the job.)
Seriously though, no one knows what it's actually like to be president better than the select few who have held the office, so these moderators would bring a unique, real-life perspective to debate questions. Former presidents also still command a certain amount of respect, even among their peers, so presumably their presence would make it harder for candidates to get sanctimonious with their moderators.
This option -- a favourite of Republican debate pro Newt Gingrich -- would have the candidates square off in a series of policy debates, with each candidate taking a side on an issue or statement.
There are two ways this could go down. In the more extreme scenario, the candidates could run back to the original 1858 debates, with each candidate speaking for 90 minutes.
The more practical -- and television-friendly -- alternative would be to use the modified Lincoln-Douglas format used in high-school and college competition, where the opposing sides offer arguments, rebuttals, and cross-examinations for a total of 32 minutes.
Admittedly, eliminating the middle man could get dicey, especially if the candidates are relatively inexperienced debaters.
But forcing presidential opponents to ask one another questions would at least inject some real debate into the ritual, putting an end to the weird, triangular interview that we've grown accustomed to in these match-ups.
The current debate format was adopted by the Commission in the late 1980s, and has not adapted well to the digital era. The debates have an incredibly limited online footprint, and there is virtually no opportunity for voter participation except in town hall-style forums.
A dramatic way to change that would be to get rid of the live audience and the moderators, put the two opponents (and a camera crew) alone in a room, and let voters online decide what issues the candidates discuss. To weed out questions about Area 51 and JFK's assassination, candidates could choose together between two questions, with the added benefit of promoting sportsmanship and bipartisan cooperation.
On the downside, this could also be really, really boring.
It's also possible that the presidential debate itself is irrecoverable, and should be replaced with some kind of Amazing Race-style competition. For example, presidential candidates and their running mates could be given a route through several states, and told to accomplish voter-oriented tasks, like throwing pop-up rallies or registering voters.
Really, the sky is the limit with this one.
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