Everyone is talking about last night’s youtube based presidential debate (a quick rundown of which is here at Salon). The whole thing is irking me largely because, unsurprisingly, the press is using it as yet another excuse to talk about anything other than the real issues and how the candidates differ—as if we needed another way to cover the horse race instead of the policy. At least it’s better than talking about haircuts and the public reaction to them, I suppose.
But even the “novel” format being discussed isn’t very interesting. Don’t get me wrong, if getting people to submit questions via youtube yeilds more interesting, personal, or compelling questions, then I’m all for it, but the questions are the easy part. Holding the candidates accountable for giving true and deep answers that cover policy is the real problem. If I ran the world, here’s what I’d want from my debate formats:
Forget the questions, check the answers!
How about having the first half of the debate devoted to questions and the second half to follow up. People online would have a chance to post followup questions, and more importantly, they and a panel of experts would be available to do live fact checking and would challenge assertions that the candidates make. This would reward candidates who have more to a plan than a soundbite and punish candidates who think they can get away with an optimistic over simplification that sounds better than the complicated truth.
Note: To their credit, I just heard the guests on the PRI/KCRW program To The Point make some similar complaints and suggestions. Notably one of the guests suggested that a better way to leverage the internet would be to have instant polls of satisfaction with whether the candidate answered the question or not, so the moderator could choose to follow up with a challenge like “75% of the audience feels you didn’t really answer the question, would you like an opportunity to give a fuller answer?” The hope would be that it would be impossible to say no, however I worry that it would just give the candidates who like to steer their answers back to the same nice sounding platitudes a chance to utter more of the same. The polls would also be deeply vulnerable to manipulation by the campaigns. I think my idea would be a bit more robust and would be more likely to draw more out of the candidates. It would, however, make the time crunch even more of a problem when dealing with so many candidates at once.