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Save Debates by Making Them More Boring

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Commentary:

As things stand now, there may not be any presidential debates in 2024. And I’m not sure that would be a huge loss.

The Republican National Committee has announced that it will no longer participate in debates managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has been in charge since 1988. RNC officials say they will find, “newer, better debate platforms,” but anything they propose will have to be agreed to by the Democrats.

With so much division and distrust between the parties, I won’t be surprised if the election cycle passes without an agreement on debates. Republicans thought Chris Wallace of FOX News was unfair. It’s hard to imagine a moderator who both they and the Democrats would agree to.

It would be a break from tradition, and a blow to the fall TV ratings. But I’m not sure voters would lose much as to their ability to cast an informed ballot. There wasn’t much to be gleaned from watching Wallace repeatedly shouting “No!” at the sitting president
in a futile attempt to enforce the debate rules, but it did make for some terrific television.

The problem with televised debates is they try to serve two masters, being both informative and entertaining. But once the TV lights come on, entertainment always wins. Which is why TV cameras are still banned at the Supreme Court. I disagree with that, but I understand their point.

Historians generally agree that most people who listened to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates on radio thought Nixon made the stronger points. But those watching on TV saw a young, telegenic John Kennedy against a nervous, sweaty Richard Nixon and came to a different opinion.

Debates are scored based on effective zingers and one-liners, not the ability to explain thorough solutions to complex problems. Nobody remembers what Ronald Reagan said about Russia, Central America or the economy during the 1984 debate. But we all remember the one-liner about not holding Water Mondale’s “youth and inexperience against him.” Mondale laughed along with the rest of us, and with one well-told joke Reagan put to rest all concerns about his approaching senility.

If I were in charge of debates, they would be a lot more boring. And the moderator would be completely irrelevant. Here’s how it would work:

Each candidate gets to pick four topics. The only job of the moderator is to announce the topic. Candidate A speaks first for four minutes, followed by Candidate B for four minutes. Candidate A then gets one minute to close, followed by Candidate B. Then we move to a topic chosen by Candide B, and reverse the process. Candidates always get the final word on the topic chosen by their opponent.

When they aren’t speaking, the candidate’s microphone is turned off, and the camera does not show their reactions. Debates will be held in a TV studio without a live audience.

It would be fair and informative, but I’m not sure if anybody would watch.

Participation in debates is always a tactical decision for political campaigns. Candidates who have a large lead in the polls, and incumbents who have strong name recognition have little incentive to participate in anything that could potentially shake up the race or increase the profile of their opponent.

Now that the RNC has broken the model that had pressured campaigns to participate in past debates, it will be much easier for whichever candidate who believes they have the lead in 2024 to skip the debates. It’s a move the RNC may live to regret.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.