Debates Have Become Debacles: Here’s What to Do

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Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas

Presidential debate moderators have turned to such hackery in their questioning that they’ve actually united the GOP candidates who are trying to use the debates to defeat each other.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is polling so far down he’s drowning in the pot likker. But he argues he’s a legitimate candidate because of his 35 trips to Afghanistan and 30 years in the military.

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At the end of the day, Graham would like for the debate-makers to draw straws and to split the GOP candidates into two debates without regard to polling. Of course he would.

Several GOP campaigns met on Sunday to hash out what they want to do after seeing CNBC’s B.S. of an attempt at a debate last week, a move that may already be crumbling. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus called the CNBC debate last week a “crap sandwich.”

And Carl Bernstein called it “really reprehensible” on CNN:

The two GOP front-runners have their own ideas. Ben Carson doesn’t want the low-pollers at a kiddie-table debate. That gives him less time and fewer opportunities to slip up — never good for a front-runner.

Donald Trump ixnay-ed that — it’s just more people to pound on him and less time for him to proclaim things “disasters” and humans “terrible people” or “nice people, but…” (Trump also plans to negotiate directly with TV networks about debates.)

Some ideas make good sense; others, such as “pick-up debate ball,” stretch it.

My own idea, which was echoed by Dennis Miller last week, is to just do away with moderators altogether.

Give each candidate a predetermined amount of time to say whatever he or she wants to say, then move on down the line. Repeat however many times you want.

Turn on the mic only for the person who has the floor. A candidate can use his or her time to make opening statements, tout policy, attack other candidates or respond to other candidates. Nobody can speak except when it is his or her turn.

If someone tries to interrupt another candidate, he or she loses an amount of their own time equal to the length of the interruption — and all mics are shut off until the interruption is finished. During this time, the TV audience sees a full shot of all the candidates with a graphic reading: Candidate X is currently breaking the rules of the debate and will have some of his/her own time deducted.

A loud buzzer sound would be pumped into the hall so that even people and reporters in attendance couldn’t hear what the interrupter says. (You were picturing Ted Cruz as the interrupter, weren’t you?) If the candidate (OK, Ted Cruz) goes longer than his or her remaining time allotment, he or she is booted from the stage.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it would put the debate back into the hands of the candidates.

Republicans would have a certain disadvantage over Democrats using this plan since the GOP still has 15 candidates and the Dems are down to three. (And, yes, I think former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore ought to be allowed onstage. The Democrats didn’t stop former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chaffee from wandering up behind a lectern — though they did stop Larry Lessig, which also was wrong, and who has now abandoned his campaign.)

It’s the GOP’s own problem that they have so many more candidates. They can all either get less time than the Democrats do in their debates — or their debates can just go way longer. (They already have three more scheduled debates that the Democrats do anyhow.)

Either way, candidates should be able to say what they want without a media filter.

After all, a biased media is nothing new and won’t go away anytime soon. After the Lincoln-Douglas debates, pro-Douglas newspapers cleaned up Douglas’ remarks and left Lincoln’s in the rough fashion of the transcribers. Pro-Lincoln papers did the opposite.

Lincoln lost to Douglas in that 1858 Senate race, but Lincoln later edited the debates and published them in a book, going over the heads of the media. Two years later, that book influenced the decision of the Republican Party to nominate Lincoln for president.

No reason any of the current candidates can’t follow his example.