Commentary: The Democratic Party’s campaign for the presidency began in earnest recently with a sort of political catwalk, as 20 candidates over two nights took turns giving 60-second answers to questions about matters of life and death.
American politicians and news producers do not hold debates; they produce events called debates that serve mainly as forums for miniature stump speeches, heckles and complaints about the event’s format.
Even to an unaccomplished high school parliamentary debater like myself, this is weak beer, wasting talented candidates, coddling mediocrity and underestimating the national audience. It certainly does no justice to important issues.
With enough candidates on stage to fill out a lacrosse team, the best candidates could do much of the time was audition for YouTube clips and interrupt one another.
There were some good 60-second answers, as when Julián Castro spoke about immigration Wednesday night. Yet even when presented with a bowl of starch, the commentariat will find a nutritious meal. They will write about lesser-known candidates who made a positive introduction, better-known candidates who were less impressive than expected, and which second- or third-tier candidates captured attention. There will be jokes about technical gaffes and digs at the moderators.
Let it be said, however, that most of the questions (on the first night at least) deserved a true debate format.
Such a format exists, tried and proven, capable of delivering competitive, substantive debate that makes for smart, entertaining viewing. It even proffers a tip of Uncle Sam’s hat to American history. I speak of Lincoln-Douglas Debates, also known simply as “LD.”
Inspired by the famous debates between U.S. Senate candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in 1858, LD involves pairs of candidates who debate a proposition. One argues that the proposition is true, while the other seeks to persuade listeners that it is false.
Debate propositions could address broad issues — “The state must not infringe on any woman’s reproductive choice” — or policy details, such as “Repealing the 2017 tax cuts will devastate manufacturing.”
For the Democratic primary, imagine pairing Joe Biden and Jay Inslee in a debate about climate policy, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker about regulating the finance sector, or Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar about Medicare-for-All (or not).
The LD format allows time for each to present contrasting positions, and for rebuttals and cross-examination. We need not follow Douglas and Lincoln’s custom of speaking for 60 to 90 minutes at a stretch. Typically a competitive LD debate match features six- or seven-minute speeches, three-minutes apiece for cross-examination, a few minutes for rebuttals, with the match concluding in about 35 minutes.
It affords opportunities for prepared presentations and spontaneous interaction alike. It can also promote a positive model for vigorous yet courteous differences of opinion in a Balkanized political culture.
The exhibition allows voters to observe how presidential candidates communicate, an indispensable aspect of the chief executive’s job. Do they persuade, or swing a hammer? How well does this person listen and apprehend? Can they present a strong case, test an idea with critical thinking, and respond adroitly when their proposals are questioned? Can they connect their positions to personal experience and address voters?
A season of well moderated LD debates could provide a winning combination of substance and spectacle. In a crowded primary field, we could arrange them like a tournament; for the general election, a series of debates on the questions of gravest importance.
It would be no panacea, for sure, and the proposal would be resisted by politicians and news producers alike. It is a shame. Real debates could do much to enliven American politics and improve its tone.
Desert Sage writes on the human side of politics. Responses welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.