I gotta admit it: Although I’m a politics junkie during big election years, this cycle’s presidential debates are starting to wear thin. Sure there are still unexpected fireworks displays that can justify wall-to-wall viewing, but the stretches in between of canned answers and stump speech fragments seem to drag on longer and longer.
So let me suggest two format changes to break this increasingly depressing mold: First, giving the candidates considerably more time to answer questions; and second, permitting the hopefuls to question each other for at least part of each session.
During the last Democratic debate, the Public Broadcasting Service gave Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders 90 seconds to answer each question directed at them, and 30 seconds to respond to those initial answers. And the Republican candidates at their most recent session had 60 seconds to answer questions they received directly, 30 seconds for responses to the journalists’ follow-ups, and 30 seconds to rebut attacks from other candidates.
The strict time limits might have made sense during the early debates. For example, the initial Republican prime-time event in August featured ten contenders, while five Democratic hopefuls took the stage for their party’s inaugural debate. But now the Republican field is down to six, and only two Democrats remain. Unless the debates themselves are greatly shortened, why not enable these politicians to go into some detail? And pose questions sharp enough to encourage such answers?
It’s true that the candidates on either side could use these new opportunities to mouth even more blather than usual. But better queries – perhaps coming from some recognized specialists in various fields – could boost the risks of simple bloviating. It’s also true that candidate-to-candidate exchanges could degenerate into simple shout fests. But we’ve seen some of that already. Journalist moderators could still be available as referees. And (for the most part) politicians could still be relied on not to want to loose their cool in public. Moreover, it’s not like many in the audience would greatly miss the kinds of softball or gotcha questions seemingly foremost on the media’s minds.
Although it’s still early in Campaign 2016, the public has already been treated to nine Republican presidential debates, six Democratic counterparts, and one Democratic Town Hall. The ratings seem to be holding up on both sides (see here and here for evidence), but Americans’ attention spans don’t appear to be growing longer these days, and it’s easy to envision their interest in such events fading until the fall contest is set. Both the sponsoring networks and the health of American democracy have strong stakes in keeping the nation engaged. Shaking up an ever more predictable series of presidential debates would be both good business and good civics.