Even though diplomacy is usually guided by the consensus principle, the underlying standoff can be just as contentious, disagreeable, and difficult as any legal standoff or political campaign. Debates are typically the domain of political theater, but multilateral organizations engage in debates regularly. Multi-party debates can be maddening, shaped by group dynamics as well as individual leaders. But a debate where several participants square off–as with the Republican primaries this past year in the US–or the kind that Twitter is all ablaze over tonight–offers two main deliverables:
- substantive content: policies, arguments, and ideas that become the debater’s core message
- optics: tone, style, image, and even gaffes–that can overshadow the content, particularly on cable news or even Twitter where clips and quips are king.
First, I won’t assume that everyone agrees that debates are a worthy endeavor (some aren’t, and the idea has been corrupted)–but let me try to make the case. The chair of the National Presidential Debate Commission offered a bit of history in the Op-Ed pages today, and asserted that televised debates such as tonight’s, matter:
The debates are one of the few features of our political campaigns that are still admired throughout the world. Candidate debates are still new in most democratic countries, even in Western Europe. Britain, often held up as a model for how to hold a proper election, only in 2010 began to have televised live debates among the party leaders vying to be prime minister.
Let me suggest that after you watch the debate on Wednesday night, you turn off your television set and do your best to avoid the spin that will follow. Talk about what you saw and heard with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. You are smarter than the spinners. It’s your decision that matters on Nov. 6, not theirs.
To learn something substantive, we need a structure that can channel it. Good questions help. I think there is a lot of room for improvement here, but not a lot of will to make changes in the U.S. political system..
Unfortunately, the media amplifies the optics side, making it the more powerful factor in the news cycle. Consider Michael Kinsley’s thoughtful take on the gaffe, something that isn’t as important in the long game yet it becomes life or death for politicos like Allen or George H.W. Bush (“no new taxes”):
Where is the similar scrutiny of gaffes and alleged gaffes? We need official answers to questions like: When has a politician committed a genuine gaffe and when is the accusation just demagoguery from the other side? If it’s a real gaffe, how serious is it? Should the gaffing pol just shrug it off? Apologize and move on? Slit her wrists? It depends on the nature of the gaffe. …Much more common is the stupid small lie that is also a gaffe because you inevitably get caught. Or the statement that is technically true but patently ridiculous.
Other aspects will focus on how body language convey “important” messages or what the overall “feeling” is that voters takeaway. Again, these are important but they are largely superficial in terms of the policies and substance and key decisions and issues that will shape the administration’s approach.
We may want to reconsider the format–and indeed, this is a regular issue for (debate?) negotiation among party operatives. On Room for Debate today a number of observers point out areas for fixing the format, rules, transmission, or post-game interpretation. For example, Ruzwana Bashir, the former head of Oxford Union–a legendary debating forum–argues that a format that allows for genuine communication and spontaneity is critical–and is lost in the televised format. If you want to see the best current manifestation of this approach consider the brilliant John Donovan, moderator of Intelligence Squared where evenly matched, prepared debaters face-off with an understandable metric for measuring a win, provocative questions, and a careful and probing host.
John even has a few suggestions to make the President debates run more smoothly. (Let’s let him win that point.)
Other suggestions on how to improve debates:
- Former debater and NYT columnist Mark Oppenheimer suggests that strictly enforced time limits, a single topic, and cross-examination could all make improvements–based on the lessons learned from high school and collegiate forensics.
- Peggy Noonan sees 2012 as “The Year the Debates Mattered“, where “we may look back on 2012 as the point at which old school officially ended, and some new school began. Maybe the public isn’t so impressed by old school. Maybe this is how people like their politics now.”
And to end on another note, consider several television examples of debates: