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Opinion

R.I.P. town-hall presidential debates

In Tuesday’s presidential debate moderated by Candy Crowley, both candidates focused more on delivering their prepared quips and the equality of timekeeping than directly answering voters' questions. The town-hall debate has not lived up to its promise. It is time to try a fresh format.

By Amy E. Black / October 18, 2012

Mitt Romney and President Obama spar during the second presidential debate – a town-hall debate moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Oct. 16. Op-ed contributor Amy E. Black writes: 'Voters deserve more from debates than memorable missteps and snappy one-liners....The time has come to try a new format that encourages clear policy discussion and focused answers even as it discourages desperate attempts to upstage the opponent.'

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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Wheaton, Ill.

Democrats claimed an Obama victory in the presidential debate Tuesday night. Republicans thought Mitt Romney held his own. The true loser was the American public.

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Twenty years ago, the first town-hall presidential debate premiered at the University of Richmond. Undecided voters assembled on stage to ask questions of candidates George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. Tuesday night, President Obama and Mr. Romney had their turn to interact with a similar audience and field voter questions in the second presidential debate, this one moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley.

The town-hall format was introduced to provide contrast with the more formal debates, to include everyday voters in the process, and to add spontaneity. But like so many things that are far better in theory than in practice, the town hall-format began with great intentions but has not lived up to the promise. After two decades of this experiment, it is time to try a fresh format.

Modern candidate debates are a pale shadow of the venerable contests of yesteryear such as those made famous by senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas who crisscrossed Illinois delivering their exhaustive exchanges. Each of their seven debates opened with a 60-minute speech followed by a 90-minute rebuttal and a 30-minute rejoinder.

The so-called debates of the television era provide too few opportunities for cogent discussion of points and counterpoints and too many occasions for grandstanding and posturing. Lincoln and Douglas are rolling in their graves.

Tuesday night’s forum did allow for 10 questions on a range of topics such as jobs, assault weapons, pay inequity, and the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. But both candidates seemed more focused on weaving their prepared quips into their responses than answering questions directly. Moderator Candy Crowley tried to refocus the candidates to the specific issues raised, and at times they complied. But both seemed more worried about getting the last word and ensuring the equality of timekeeping than giving direct answers.

Voters deserve more from debates than memorable missteps and snappy one-liners. The candidates are too determined to stay on script. They spend weeks with their media teams preparing for the debates, memorizing statistics, planning choreography (even practicing how to sit on the barstool-style chairs), and carefully crafting answers that they intend to deliver at almost any cost.

The end result tells us more about the candidates’ memorization skills than it does about how they will lead the country for the next four years.

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