Saturday, December 08, 2007

How to Fix the Debates

As a political junkie, I have watched or listened to almost all the presidential debates, for both Republican hopefuls and Democrat hopefuls this year. For any of you have similarly been plugged into the primary debates, perhaps you share my observation. This is not really a comment on the candidates, though if they cared about the debates they could likely fix the flaws in the system. This is more a commentary on our broken political system.

Each debate, whether it be the more formal, candidates behind podiums, responding to questions from moderators, to the more informal "Youtube" debates where "regular people" supposedly ask the questions, has the same flaw. That is, each debate is a repeat of the previous debate. For those of us that are serious observers of the political system, we do not need to watch eight debates, to finally see that Hillary Clinton cannot take a stand on any issue that will offend or alienate more than eight percent of voters from her campaign. The debates are essentially horrible repeats, and each new episode, the same sort of questions are asked, the same sort of answers are delivered, the only difference is the tone of rhetoric used by the candidates, and the greater likelihood that one of the candidates will mis-speak or finally be called out on their inability to take an honest position on an important issue, as Romney just showed us in the Republican Youtube debate, with his refusal to discuss what means of interrogation constitute "torture".

What our system needs, and I believe would get, with a debate between candidates Kucinich and Paul, is an honest debate about the real issues confronting our country, and what methods are A. allowable constitutionally to address those issues and B. most effective in addressing those issues. Lets take "Health Care" for example. I don't think you will find anyone in the country that will not acknowledge that the system is broken for themselves or someone else. The question then becomes, what is the federal government, under our current constitution, allowed to do about it, and what methods or involvement, if any, would actually produce desirable results. This sort of debate, and discussion of the issues is not happening with our current system, and will not with the current system.

As one who likes to fix things, I think I have a good starting point, that may lead us in a direction to fix the current debate problem. I propose that the parties take a certain number of the debates, lets say 6 or 8, that they know ahead of time will occur, and then assign to each debate a single topic. Lets say the topics for the debates are Health Care, War on Terror, Gun Control, The Economy, Taxation, Abortion/Execution/Stem Cell issues (we'll call it the Life issue debate), Education, Energy Policy, for example. Now, each debate would deal only with one topic. Candidates like Rudy Giuliani would have to be kept, by the moderators, from bringing issues in the education debate back to 9/11, but that should be do-able. Each candidate should be allowed to answer each question, and each candidate should have the same amount of time to answer each question. Whats more, each answer should be given around 5 minutes, not 30 seconds. I would like the candidates to be able to submit questions that they would all have to answer (after all, as politicians, they understand a lot of the nuances better than most citizens, and may be able to highlight some of the policy complexities nicely for the public), and I don't see why candidates could not know some of the questions ahead of time and prepare real honest, and thoughtful answers.

I find our political system to be terribly broken, but reforming the debates, so that they actually provide some value to the voting public, could be a good place to start. The system will never be without personal attacks, and hyperbole, and demagogy, but as is true with all systems, entropy reigns if we do not put in the work to create order in the systems that produce the people who govern us.