Build a better debate


Stuart Lombard

Graphic by Tran Bui.
On Oct. 8  the vice presidential debate was much more civil than the previous week’s presidential debate, but no more illuminating. It left me with more questions than answers, and with no one to answer them.
After the utter chaos of the presidential debate, the bar for last Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate was set low. Typically, vice presidential debates are not critical events in the run-up to the election. But this year is different.
Both Vice-President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris had to demonstrate one thing: that they could take over as president at a moment’s notice. And the issue is particularly salient this year. For, no matter who wins, the president sworn in next January will be the oldest to do so.
The two VP candidates just had to be able to hold a civil discussion of the issues. And no one was reasonably expecting anything different. I did not expect to feel so strongly after the debate ended.
The candidates’ unwillingness to answer questions posed by the moderator made me exasperated. Honestly, it made me angry. I just wanted answers from both sides. But instead of hearing how the two candidates differ, like in a real debate, we were treated to each candidate’s prepared talking points.
Questions were asked, but not answered. Both Harris and Pence skirted the questions and drove the conversation back to taxes, the economy and the response to COVID-19. Both Harris and Pence frequently accused the other of operating under their own facts.
Wednesday’s debate made me sure of one thing: debates have proven to be ineffective at informing the American people of the different views of our main political parties. We can do better.
If debates are meant to show people that the candidates are capable of basic English, then the election might as well have been seized by Biden after the first debate. Trump’s incoherent jabbering does not do him any favours.
If the point of a debate is to hear rehearsed talking points, we could record each candidate separately, and release a manifesto mix-tape to the people.
But if the objective of a debate is to have an open conversation with tough questions posed by the moderator, then we need a different format. There must be some way to either ensure that the candidate answers the question or makes sure that they are made to look bad if they refuse to answer.
For example, there could be a short timer that starts once a question has been posed. If the moderator thinks that the candidate is trying to provide an answer, then the candidate will have more time added to their clock. If not, then their microphone will be muted. Such a format would help to cut down on the regurgitation of talking points.
Fact checking is also something that should be done zealously. With all the technology we have, there should be a way to communicate the facts to viewers, in real time, and if the candidate is being truthful. The moderator must also be empowered to forcibly cut off a candidate in order to push further into a question, perhaps challenging the candidate to self-correct on the facts. The consequence of being wilfully dishonest should be that either the moderator or a panel of political experts have the opportunity to read the facts and provide evidence.
Ultimately, we should strive for a debate format that is conducive to informing voters and provoking a substantial debate on the issues. The more the candidates are committed to being honest and civil, the more the debate format can be fluid. The flip side would be a sterile but still informative event.
If there was any hope that the second, town-hall debate, scheduled for Oct. 15 would yield different results, that hope has been dashed. The Commission on Presidential Debates decided that the debate should be done virtually for safety purposes, but President Trump refused to participate. Instead, Joe Biden will attend a town hall hosted by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, and Trump will hold a simultaneous town hall on NBC.
We need to have an honest dialogue about what we expect from our politicians and how we expect them to behave. Let’s build a better debate.
Otherwise, the most memorable moments of the debates will continue to be cameos by insects.