I’m beginning a series for this blog called “Political Fix” in which I will banter around ideas that I think will actually help fix America. While good policies on tax, immigration, education, war powers etc. are badly needed, those are not the types of fixes I’m proposing.
One of the central tenets of American Political thought is the fundamental structure of government. America is not a parliament that can do anything it wants. A written constitution with checks and balances, assigned powers that are enumerated, a system of Federalism in which the cultures of the different peoples of the states remain diverse on certain topics, all of these are fundamental institutions that have no particular policy attached to them. My proposals for restoring liberty, political efficiency, and general happiness to America will focus on proposals to strengthen the institutions, without any thought to what policies may come from those institutions.
One of the hallmarks of a representative system, be it democratic or republican, is the ability to debate and put your ideas before the public for them to choose. This means debates have to actually involve candidates who will debate the same topic. This is NOT what happened in the last presidential election, specifically not in the primaries, and there’s a specific reason: the structure of the debates.
The Republicans are the better example so I’ll focus on them. At one point they had 17 major candidates all attempting to debate. It got so ridiculous that they split the debates into two tiers and still everyone was talking over one another. How to solve this problem?
First, do not have moderators who can ask different questions of different candidates. Throughout the primary debates, moderators acted as third-party candidates, asking leading or sometimes misleading questions to expose a candidate’s weaknesses. Rarely if ever did they ask a question that highlighted a strength of any candidate.
The purpose of a moderator is to introduce the candidates, set the stage for the debate (perhaps by leading with a general topic or question) and keep time. This lets the candidates discuss how they would approach a topic, and ensures that each addresses the same topic so the people can judge who has the better ideas.
The debates need moderators who will keep the peace and the time, but allow each candidate equal time and opportunity to answer the same questions.
When Abraham Lincoln and Fredric Douglas debated for a Senate seat it became one of the greatest series of political debates in American history. Over 7 debates the candidates ranged from the Kansas-Nebraska act to the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, but the themes of the debates was always centered around slavery, and what each party’s platform towards it would be.
The modern debates should be about the pressing issues, and less about the candidates’ personalities. Exactly how you would enforce this I’m not sure, but if each debate had a general topic to begin with that each candidate knew about going in, then the candidates would have to make choices themselves about how to craft their message and then respond, and either way the public would judge them on their performance. What we got last election was rude and prying questions into too much personal drivel.
Too many people makes a debate for the public impossible. Debates should have no more than 3 candidates on stage at a time. If there are more candidates, split them up into groups and let them debate on different days. Different days ensures that each debate can still be aired at a prime time, and no one is marginalized because he is momentarily low in the polls. You could also (gasp) let them challenge one another to debates not sanctioned or sponsored by the party (as Lincoln once challenged Douglas).
It’s ridiculous to expect a person to be able to detail their strategy for “helping the economy” or the “war on terror” in 2 minutes or less (especially if they are blindsided by the question). Debates should ask a general question, start with a specific candidate and allow him a length of at least 20 minutes to answer, then allow each candidate 1/2 the time to respond. The next debate between the same candidates they will start with a different candidate. This will only work if several debates are held upon the same topic.
Better debates will mean a better informed people, a better candidate, and will be necessary for the other political fixes I will propose in due course.