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.
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To be sure, the town-hall format has offered great material for comedy sketch writers: Who can resist a parody of John McCain wandering aimlessly around the stage or Al Gore marching over to George W. Bush in an ill-conceived attempt at intimidation? This kind of debate also generates new phrases like “binders full of women” that light up Twitter and Tumblr accounts but somewhat divert attention from substantive discussion of the issues.Skip to next paragraph
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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. The presidential debates are the only opportunity for most voters to hear directly from the candidates and compare their philosophies and positions side by side. Voters deserve better.
In 2016, the Commission on Presidential Debates should replace the town-hall format with an event patterned after Rick Warren’s successful candidate forum in 2008. At that event, Mr. Warren, an evangelical preacher at Saddleback Church in southern California, took turns speaking one-on-one with the candidates, asking John McCain and Barack Obama the same questions while the other waited backstage in a soundproof room.
The commission could craft a forum following a similar format. A moderator could prepare a script based in part on suggestions from undecided voters. The questions could cover a wide range of topics with the goal of including subjects beyond those typically covered in debate briefing books. Each candidate would take a turn interacting with the moderator, answering the same series of questions. This would also allow the moderator to press candidates to answer questions they try to evade.
Still, some voters might worry: But how would candidates dispute inaccuracies in the other’s statements? They would still have two other traditional-style debates for direct interaction, and they would provide natural contrast in their individual responses. Direct rebuttals in the traditional debate formats rarely shed clarity on “the facts” anyway. Most exchanges turn into juvenile finger-pointing that voters have to wait for independent fact-checkers to sort out the next day.
With this new format, instead of interrupting or baiting their opponents, candidates would need to focus on cogently explaining their personal outlook on life and building a positive case for their policy proposals. Such a format might force them to move beyond their stump speeches and prepared talking points, and it would likely help voters gain insights into the candidates’ personalities, thought processes, and decision-making styles.
Both candidates spent too much time Tuesday night worried about getting the last word and too little time directly addressing the questions. It’s time to introduce a new format to the lineup of presidential debates that will move past the theatrics and provide voters what they need most: information.