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It’s time to end the Presidential Debate system

| Wednesday, September 18, 2019

We may be over a year away from the 2020 Presidential Election, but the race for the Democratic nomination is in full swing. The field consists of 20 Democrats and, as of last Thursday, they have participated in three nationally televised debates. The intention of these programs, of course, is to allow the candidates to present themselves and their positions to the American people. Yet they fail entirely at doing so. 

Candidates are given virtually no time to speak. Last Thursday’s debate had the highest amount of allotted time per question thus far, and even then it was only 75 seconds per direct question and 45 seconds per rebuttal. This is not enough time. It’s not enough time for someone to explain their position. It’s not enough time for someone to explain themselves. And it’s certainly not enough time to judge whether or not someone is qualified to be president. 

Some of the candidates have expressed their frustration with the current system, too. Sen. Amy Klobucher of Minnesota, for example, has taken issue with the way in which most of the questions are posed. “A lot of questions have been 30-second responses to other people’s ideas,” she said. “I hope that these moderators will ask one of the other candidates, bring up one of my ideas and say, ‘Why isn’t this a good idea?’” Sen. Klobucher brings up another great point. It’s exceedingly rare for a question to actually focus directly on an issue. Instead, moderators often frame their questions in the light of another candidate’s opinion. Answers then devolve into personal attacks rather than substantive discussion. 

Even some of the field’s most successful candidates (thus far) agree. In his recent appearance on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, Sen. Bernie Sanders stated that “You shouldn’t even call them a debate. What they are is a reality TV show in which you have to come up with a sound bite and all that stuff. And it’s demeaning, it’s demeaning to the candidates, and it’s demeaning to the American people. You can’t explain the complexity of healthcare in America in 45 seconds, nobody can. … And then what that encourages people to do is to come up with sound bites or do absurd things.”

Sen. Sanders is correct. There is absolutely no way — no way any candidate, regardless of intelligence or ability or experience — can successfully explain his or her stance on any issue in 45 seconds. It couldn’t be done in even five minutes. A topic as nuanced and as important as gun control deserves two hours of discussion from a single candidate. Background checks and the form they take, the sale of assault rifles at gun shows, whether or not firearm manufactures can be held liable in the event of shooting — these are all important sides of the issue that don’t receive a second of discussion in the current debate format. 

And so, we need to change the format. Later in the same podcast, Sen. Sanders offered a sort of alternative. He noted that in the United Kingdom, candidates for political office are given a certain amount of time to speak on public television regarding the issues they believe to be most salient to their country. He said, “You remember the Labor Party? [They’ll say] ‘You’re a candidate. Here’s 30 minutes of time and you do with it as you want. You want to speak 30 minutes on healthcare, whatever it may be, you can do that.”

The Democratic National Committee should do something similar. Perhaps the debates should not be “debates” in the traditional sense at all. Perhaps they should be discourses, and multiple rounds of them. Maybe there should be a “Healthcare Discourse.” Maybe it’s a “Healthcare and Foreign Policy Discourse.” And maybe there shouldn’t be questions at all. Instead, candidates should have 10 minutes to take the topic in any direction they want — to explain the issue, to explain their position, to explain their plan. Maybe they should have 15 minutes. They should certainly have more than one. 

This format would allow American voters to better know the candidates, to truly understand their stance on an important topic and how it affects our lives. It would also bring to light a candidate’s knowledge of an issue or expose their lack of knowledge. Ten minutes is a long time. You can’t hide behind sound bites and snappy one-liners. Perhaps most importantly, it would remind the American people just how nuanced these issues are. They cannot be talked about, let alone solved, in 45 seconds. They’ll take time. They’ll take effort from all of us. They’ll take the leadership of a president with a deep understanding of what the country needs, and a firm belief in his or her administration’s ability to care for these needs and to bring about a brighter future. Surely, if we expect a president to do this for four years, we can expect them to talk about something that matters for 10 minutes.

It would be a long program, sure. It’d probably feel tedious by the end. There would be less shouting, less name calling; there’d be fewer sound bites. But maybe we don’t need more exciting television. Maybe we need to know that this is serious, that the process of healing America’s wounds and building a better country isn’t funny — but it is important. Besides, after the last four years, we don’t need any more political sound bites. We should have enough to last a lifetime.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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