What Can We Learn from Debates? Grading the Idea

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.

via A Glimmer in the Vast Wasteland of Television – NYTimes.com.

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.

via Gaffe-Checking the Debates – Bloomberg.

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:


7 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Debates? Grading the Idea”

  1. This morning, I had the opportunity to interview the vice president of the college democrat club on campus for a story that will air on BYU Radio. During our interview, he mentioned that he hadn’t watched any of the post debate analysis. I remember thinking this was quite a novel idea since I usually switch on the TV to listen to the pundits right after the debates end, but by that point I (and probably most other viewers) have already formed my opinion about who’s performance was stronger. Debates usually feel like a popularity contest to me, anyway. I don’t think anyone truly “wins” the presidential debates; one candidate’s performance is just more memorable than their opponent’s.

    The role of the moderator seems somewhat unimportant in the context of presidential debates because neither of the candidates seemed to pay any attention to him. Both candidates had a tendency to go over the allotted amount of time and to stray away from the the original question that was posed to them. I found myself wondering if the debate would have been different if both candidates had given more succinct answers and stayed within the frame of time they were given. The level of preparedness also affects the perception of the candidates. I couldn’t help but compare Mitt Romney to a whiz kid who’s over prepared for a test whenever he was asked to answer a question, whereas President Obama seemed to have a small amount of responses that he’d recycle for each question.

    To address whether or not it’s a good idea to have debates as part of the political process in general, I think that it helps move campaigns along and gain publicity for the candidates. Even though facts occasionally get distorted, the debates still provide candidates with an opportunity to lay their plans out to the nation.

    Here’s an interesting story from the Washington Post about fact checking Wednesday night’s debate:

  2. I was actually very impressed with Romney’s speech, and thought he did very well, as most people seems to think so. I could tell he memorized and repeated much of his speech, but his delivery was great. He was very strong and agressive, giving the impression that he can make a great leader. I noticed that Romney was very organized in the way he delivered his message, and that Obama tried to maintain a calm atmosphere while being attacked relentless by his oponent. However, Our president’s attitude came out as weak. Today I researched the internet to see if other people had the same opinion, and found that Obama’s rating was hurt by Wednesday’s debate. For the first time since the begining of the campaing I think Romney have a chance.

  3. I think debates are crucial for a fair election process. Outside of the debates, it is so easy for a candidate to just rip their opponent, spread half-truths (or even flat-out lies), and try and define their opponent for them. However, debates force the candidates to come together, be civil, show who they really are, and be more honest. You can’t get away with slandering your opponent and telling lies right in the middle of a debate.

    Romney dominated President Obama in last week’s debate: http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/04/politics/debate-5-things-learned/index.html . I think the moderator Jim Lehrer did a great job and remained unbiased. However, I’d like to see stricter enforcement of the speaking time limits. Jim Lehrer kept repeating the 2 minute time limit rule, but by the end of the debate, President Obama had spoken for about 4 minutes longer than Romney overall. I think that was unfair and should be monitored more closely so that both candidates get the same amount of time. Although it didn’t matter too much in this debate because quality trumps quantity any day. Like others have commented earlier, I also think that viewers should take the post-debate spin and analysis with a grain of salt. Viewers can make up their own minds on who did better.

  4. It was interesting to see the two debate styles of the President Obama and Presidential Candidate Romney. President Obama remained calm in the midst of a storm of accusations of unfulfilled promises and failed policies. He seemed to focus on the idea empowering the individual by sharing anecdotes about his grandmother and stories of real Americans. Candidate Romney took a more pragmatic approach – using numbers, facts, and statistics, he articulately clarified some up-until-this-point hazy policies and aggressively advocated better and more efficient policies in Washington. In this debate between an idealist and a pragmatist it was interesting to note the reaction of the media. Even the liberal media conceded that Romney won the debate. Can’t wait for the Vice Presidential Debates this Thursday.

  5. I completely agree with what others have said regarding the need for a stricter enforcement of the time limit. As the debate wore on, it became increasingly more evident that the candidates simply did not care about going over the time limit because there was no real punishment for doing so. While these debates are not perfect in any way, I do believe that they are an important aspect of the election process. It is the only time when candidates can really be compared, literally, side by side. I appreciated how specific Romney was throughout the debate. He gave specific examples and statistics that I felt really strengthened his argument. Obama, while definitely the weaker in terms of performance that night, still did a decent job in evoking an emotional response from the audience with his personal anecdotes. It will be interesting to see how the next debates go and if Obama will try and employ some of the same debate tactics Romney used.

    Here is an interesting interview with Jim Lehrer on his perspective on how the debate went:

  6. There was two things that particularly stood out to me in this article. The first was how the debates are one of the things about our presidental election that are admired around the world. This fact shows how it is crucial the debates stay in place. However, as many have said they need to be regulated more clearly, especially when it comes to equal time distrubution. The second thing I that really stood out to me was was the effect media plays.In years before the you tube, twitter, facebook, and other social media explosion many people did not hear anything of the debate. However, now with that technology most people heard at least some about the debate.A final point is that with a recent poll Romney is ahead of Obama. Many contribute this to the debate. Yet, others still believe that the televised presidental debates don’t make much of a difference on the election.
    This second view is covered in the opinion article below:

  7. Once again, debates prove to be a major deciding factor when the electorate looks at the available candidates. The polls clearly indicate that Mitt Romney has gained momentum from the debate. For the first time this election season, Romney is at the top of the Real Clear Politics polling average. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/us/general_election_romney_vs_obama-1171.html
    With less than a month before the election this is really bad news for the President. If he isn’t able to blunt Mitt’s momentum this debate could have spelled out his loss of the oval office. It has been interesting to see the reaction of the campaigns after the debate. To most Americans it was obvious that Romney “won” the debate, however; it looks like the Obama campaign is preparing well for the next debate, and could end up back on top before election day. It’s interesting to watch the President’s speech from the day after the debate, it was the same eloquent Barack Obama, who just didn’t show up to the debate.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s