The first series of debates between party nominees happened in 1960. Comparing the Kennedy-Nixon tilts to the embarrassment of last month’s Trump-Biden showdown marks the decline. A lifetime ago, we had informed, engaged candidates, competent on a host of issues, who were respectful toward one another.
Now, we are greeted with nominees struggling to speak in paragraphs, and sometimes sentences. Interruptions and invective are more common than instruction, much less inspiration.
The decline, though, is not the problem. The format, no matter how well or poorly it is executed, sheds little light on the thing that matters most.
Who will make the best president?
Plopping people on a stage, pointing a camera at them, and asking them to recite talking points has virtually nothing to do with being President of the United States.
Televised debates perhaps highlight the ability to withstand pressure, think quickly, and remember information. They don’t reveal a candidate’s principles.
Debates struggle to highlight thought processes. Debates are poor at revealing levels of knowledge and wisdom. Candidate speeches can reveal much, but those can be crafted by other hands.
Debates, as they exist, do not inform the citizenry, but other things might. Long interviews (60-90 mins.) with a single candidate, done by one or two journalists, would be better.
This would allow for sharp, meaningful follow-up questions that would be hard to avoid. A different kind of debate, with one significant topic on the table, where each candidate gets fifteen minutes to speak and five minutes to respond, might allow for more detailed and thoughtful exchanges. Yes, in both formats, candidates might cloud the issues, but that would be harder to do for minutes instead of seconds. In that sense, even the clouds would communicate something.
I don’t know for sure these ideas would work, but we have nothing to lose from attempting something new. Our current approach to debates is wasting almost everyone’s time.
Mark Caleb Smith is professor of political science and chair of the Cedarville University Department of History and Government. Smith is also Director of the Center for Political Studies.