The needed de­bate over de­bates

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­

The slop­ing red line of­fers a sober­ing prog­no­sis for Amer­i­can democ­racy. Con­tained in a new re­port on im­prov­ing the pres­i­den­tial de­bate process, it charts the pre­cip­i­tous de­cline of view­er­ship: from above 60 per­cent of the vot­ing age pop­u­la­tion in 1960, when the first tele­vised de­bates were held, to un­der 30 per­cent in 2012.

In truth, 1960 was a par­tic­u­larly high­wa­ter mark: View­er­ship hasn’t cracked 50 per­cent since. It fell to as low as 23 per­cent in the 2000 race.

But the red line may also un­der­state the prob­lem. The largest seg­ment of view­ers watched only one of the de­bates. In 2012, their av­er­age view­ing time was a scant 35 min­utes.

Can this trend be changed? Can the con­tent of de­bates be im­proved? Does the in­sti­tu­tion even mat­ter? The new re­port, from de­bate ex­perts of both par­ties con­vened by the An­nen­berg Public Pol­icy Cen­ter of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, as­sumes that the an­swer to the third ques­tion is yes, and of­fers sug­ges­tions — some ob­vi­ous, some provoca­tive — to ad­dress the first two.

First, though, it’s worth deal­ing with the “do de­bates mat­ter” is­sue. If mat­ter means chang­ing out­comes, the po­lit­i­cal science literature sug­gests that this is un­likely, de­spite all the ef­fort that cam­paigns de­vote not only to de­bate prep but also to ne­go­ti­at­ing ar­range­ments down to the most picayune de­tail. Po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions, for all their seem­ing ob­so­les­cence, have a big­ger im­pact.

“There is no case where we can trace a sub­stan­tial shift to the de­bates,” writes Univer­sity of North Carolina po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist James Stim­son. “But in elec­tions that were close at de­bate times, there are cases (1960, 1980, 2000) where the de­bates might have been the fi­nal nudge.”

De­bates mat­ter to democ­racy be­cause they help ed­u­cate vot­ers about the con­tent of the can­di­dates’ po­si­tions, as well as the qual­ity of their minds.

I’d ar­gue this is the wrong ques­tion. The gen­eral elec­tion de­bates may mat­ter to cam­paigns be­cause they can have an im­pact at the mar­gins. They mat­ter to democ­racy be­cause— at least in the­ory— they help ed­u­cate vot­ers about the con­tent of the can­di­dates’ po­si­tions, as well as the qual­ity of their minds.

But de­bate or­ga­niz­ers could do a bet­ter job at both, and in the process en­tice more vot­ers to watch, which is where the An­nen­berg group comes in. Chaired by Obama cam­paign ad­viser Anita Dunn and Rom­ney cam­paign ad­viser Beth My­ers, the group makes some ba­sic sug­ges­tions that would haul de­bates into the mod­ern era.

Tim­ing, for one: The rise of early vot­ing ar­gues for mov­ing de­bates ear­lier. In 2012, nearly 7 per­cent of vot­ers had cast their bal­lots be­fore the third pres­i­den­tial de­bate, on Oct. 22.

Tech­nol­ogy, for another: In a mul­ti­plat­form, mul­ti­cul­tural age, the de­bate feed should be read­ily avail­able not only on tra­di­tional broad­cast net­works but also on al­ter­na­tive venues, in­clud­ing Span­ish-lan­guage Univi­sion and Tele­mu­ndo and so­cial media.

The tougher chal­lenge in­volves dis­lodg­ing the can­di­dates from de­liv­er­ing canned set pieces and pre­med­i­tated one­lin­ers. That will never be fully achieved, but the ex­ist­ing for­mat, of fixed-time an­swers and re­but­tals and lit­tle can­di­date-to-can­di­date in­ter­change, pro­motes this air of a minutely chore­ographed min­uet.

Hence the most in­trigu­ing of the An­nen­berg rec­om­men­da­tions, to trans­form the de­bate struc­ture — and, as an added ben­e­fit, re­duce the role of mod­er­a­tors and as­so­ci­ated com­plaints about whether they are bi­ased or in­ter­ject ei­ther too much or too lit­tle.

One pos­si­bil­ity would be a “chess clock” for­mat un­der which can­di­dates would be al­lot­ted 45 min­utes of speak­ing time. “To take con­trol of the floor, a can­di­date sim­ply hits the chess clock,” the re­port sug­gests. “No an­swer, re­but­tal or ques­tion may ex­ceed three min­utes.” Can­di­dates would be able to chal­lenge one another, di­rectly.

In the com­mis­sion’s model, the time would be spread, evenly, across eight top­ics. Even bet­ter, if riskier, would be to let can­di­dates de­cide on their own how to man­age their time, de­vot­ing more to tax re­form and less to ter­ror­ism if they want.

Another would be to change the stan­dard for­mat to give each can­di­date two 90-sec­ond “chal­lenge flags” to de­vi­ate from the usual minute-long re­sponse, 30-sec­ond re­but­tal. Ex­er­cis­ing the chal­lenge flag would let the can­di­date clar­ify a re­sponse or re­spond to an at­tack. It sounds hokey, but it could make for a more com­pelling, and more in­for­ma­tive, de­bate.

Sure, in a world of multi-de­vice dis­trac­tions, the re­port’s in­tro­duc­tory im­age — mom in pearls, dad in tie and pa­ja­maclad kids hud­dled around the black-and­white TV— is not apt to be reen­acted.

But the more Amer­i­cans watch de­bates, and more of them, the bet­ter off we’ll be. Which is what makes the de­bate about de­bates worth hav­ing.

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