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.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

Amy E. Black is associate professor of political science and chair of the department of politics and international relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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