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Why Not Have a Real Presidential Debate?

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As a professional facilitator, I have been disappointed by the failure of moderators to better manage the 2016 presidential debates. A clear set of rules could help to avoid the disrespectful banter that has dominated the dialogue.

While recognizing the debates have become a source of entertainment, there is still time for a meaningful debate, if the media and the candidates are willing.

Two primary rules should be followed:

  • The candidates should agree to respect the opinions of others even if they don’t embrace that point of view. The late Justice Antonin Scalia said it best: “I respect the people who have them, but I think those views are just flat out wrong.”
  • The moderator should never lose control of the microphone.

Candidates would be allowed to respectfully say, “I don’t agree with the way the U.S. is handling this issue.” They would not be allowed to disrespectfully say, “he is lying about that.”

To maintain respectful dialogue, the moderator should be able to mute the microphone of each candidate. The first time a candidate violates any rule, he or she is cut off for five minutes. The second time, the penalty is ten minutes. Five minutes would be added for each violation thereafter.

Given the disrespectful tenor of the past debates, these two additional rules should also apply:

  • No references to other candidates, their policies, or the names of past presidents. For example, candidates should not say “I want to get rid of ObamaCare,” but would be allowed to say “the Affordable Care Act doesn’t achieve the health care reform we need. This is what’s wrong with it and what I would do to fix it.” This effectively would describe a point of view about the current status of healthcare without disparaging a person or personalizing policy. Similarly, they would not be allowed to allude to their opponents in a negative way. The purpose would be to focus on their own points of view instead of just blaming or praising others.
  • Adjectives that provide an opinion would not be allowed. Given the current rancorous dialogue, this rule would remove the ability to describe a policy by just calling it “great” or to characterize a candidate by calling their hands “small.”

These are the questions and the progression of the debate that would make it work.

  1. In place of an opening statement, what are the three most important professional positions you have held that qualify you to be president?
  2. What are the three most important issues or problems that must be addressed or resolved? Describe your view about why each is a problem in no more than three sentences using facts.
  3. What would this issue look like in the future if you could fix the problem?

The issues would be listed on the screen in the order that they were most frequently mentioned and discussed in that order. Each candidate be asked to list the three most important steps they would take to address the issue.

During the remaining time, candidates would debate the ideas for each issue, testing each other’s responses, but not personalizing them.

Closing comments would be limited to describing what they learned during the debate that will help them present their viewpoints to the American people during the rest of the campaign.

The debate should not be party-centric. There are eight candidates remaining, three Republicans, three Democrats, one Green, and three Libertarian. Democrat Roque De La Fuente is on the ballot in all fifty states but has been ignored. Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, and Green candidate Jill Stein have also been invisible in the media.

De La Fuente, Johnson, and Stein have no chance of becoming president, but perhaps they have knowledge or points of view that would inform the dialogue. For example, De La Fuente is a major landowner on the Mexican border at San Diego and Johnson was the governor of a state bordering Mexico. They might provide some intelligent observations about border issues. Likewise, Jill Stein is a physician who might have thoughtful views on health care.

This debate format might attract and hold less viewers than those to-date, particularly those viewers who have been watching primarily to gape at the juvenile banter, but it would tell us more about the candidates and their ideas than we know now.

Two questions remain:

  • Is there a major media outlet willing to host a great debate, the best debate, using these rules?
  • Would the candidates participate if invited?

Editor’s note: This column originally published on The Huffington Post on March 16, 2016.

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103 comments
Barry Ricks
Barry Ricks

I won't be surprised if there are no debates

Adam Bourg
Adam Bourg

they can't they don't have the mental capacity!

Don Hall
Don Hall

FIRST ILLIMINATE IDIOTS LIKE RUBIO AND CRUZ !

David Beer
David Beer

Rules of engagement for debate do not exist for these debates. One moderator. Question asked to each candidate respectively. Moderator Mic and questioned panelist Mic live. Rest turned off. One single interruption and that panelist forfeits their position in the debate and must leave the building. Anything less is childish banter

Michael Cobbold
Michael Cobbold

The moderator needs a switch to be able to turn off microphones!

Robt B Miller
Robt B Miller

As long as we tune in To the "gotcha" moderators providing us with entertainmenn - thats what we will get.

Philip Peter Watson
Philip Peter Watson

Also why are all the candidates never on stage at once? The binary is the problem.

Patrick Flanagan
Patrick Flanagan

How long can someone ignore the moderator before their mic gets cut off?

Kirra Smith
Kirra Smith

how can its BE SO DIFFICULT by our citizens who are SUPPOSED 2B showing us their BEST SIDE we need to pick our next leader here. IT'S A SHOW -IT'S ALL A SHOW AND WHY ARE SHOWS PRODUCED?? TO MAKE $$$$ NOW DAMMIT now I'm upset

Maggie Hohle
Maggie Hohle

Why not put Drumpf in the naughty corner with a dunce cap on?

Paul Forster
Paul Forster

They're republicans and are not allowed to follow the rules, their Drumpf leader said so!

Richard Punzo
Richard Punzo

I've always said the moderators should have a microphone "kill" switch.

Ed Bennett
Ed Bennett

I have seen one debate all year the rest where Trump attacks.GO Donald Trump For President

Joyce Evans
Joyce Evans

we had 12 that is more than enough How many has the dems have 2

Vaughn Filwett
Vaughn Filwett

Okay... The next step is the easy one, get Congress to pass the bill enacting this model, and for the President to sign it. Eezy Peezy! (Or maybe it will require generations of concerted effort to actualize... this.. )

Rodney Sampson
Rodney Sampson

There as been no actual debate between the republican party. They have made no explanations of how these"candidates" will execute anything. They have only been talking loud and saying nothing.

John Wolcott
John Wolcott

Let real taxpayers ask the questions. I'd volunteer

Judy Lou
Judy Lou

Debates should be all against each other.... why should a media person dictate the agenda?

David Reed
David Reed

The debates have lost the true meaning. They have become a long commercial for the same rhetoric they all spew out daily! There is no real substance or true answer's given any more!

Brenda Duffey
Brenda Duffey

With real questions on real issues I am concerned about.

Luis Barreto Lugo
Luis Barreto Lugo

David Barstow’s report makes clear is how broad Trump’s appeal actually is – beyond the “angry white male” the media portray – and how deeply ingrained the mainstream media’s prejudice really is.

Jim McDermott
Jim McDermott

You have to have real presidential contenders.

Alice Brumfield
Alice Brumfield

"Respect"----very much missing in this campaign. The lack of respect is what a lot of voters have against Donald Trump a concept lost on most of his supporters.

Geralyn Reed
Geralyn Reed

so glad the Cuban cry baby twins have been broken up. Cruz can't beat Donald in a REAL debate because it seems he is obcessed with Donald and can't speak a single sentence without bringing Donald into it. and with negative remarks. he is a very negative person and not the right one for the office. TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP 2016 our only hope.

David Ross
David Ross

Presidential campaigns should be restricted to be publicly funded. One vote per citizen, one dollar per citizen. All the funds would be distributed on the basis of popular vote. Campaigns only to aired on PBS.

Robert Gaines
Robert Gaines

so true ratings and money rule not common sense.

EddieMae Clendenin
EddieMae Clendenin

Yes let us hear questions and answers on Real problems and possible solutions

Nelson Mensch
Nelson Mensch

WHY DEBATE LOSERS? ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! AMERICA HAS ALREADY DECIDED...

Blue May
Blue May

Either way, this is all for entertainment.

Theodore R. Wade Jr.
Theodore R. Wade Jr.

TY, Steve Franks. The crazy part is George Washington tried to point this out centuries ago. The fact of the matter is our One Percent has played the system like a cheap piano for centuries. Pick any law you wish, read it thoroughly. You will find it is twisted to benefit the One Percent and major corporations.

Joe Phillips
Joe Phillips

It is not a startling thing that this question even has to be asked as all? Compare the 1960 debate between JFK and RMN to the reality show / Animal House food fight scene level we see today. Any 'Modicum of Decency' (if any is left at all) has sadly disappeared!

Gary DeFilippo
Gary DeFilippo

As for the IVN proposal, this idea would be great. Unfortunately, you have idiots in the media who think they are smarter than everyone and that they are TV stars. When you get rid of talking heads like Meagan Kelly you might be getting somewhere. And, why exactly do we need so many debates? Oh yeah, because it brings money to the network owners.

Jaqueline Pray
Jaqueline Pray

Yes yes yes. It's all rigged against us by the elite professional candidates. We are not getting any fair shakes with this ridiculous, illogical political system.

Jaqueline Pray
Jaqueline Pray

The moderators should not be the news commentators. They are all biased buffoons with their only concern is ratings.

Gary DeFilippo
Gary DeFilippo

You must have been reading my posts and comments for the past two years. I've been saying this for years.

Ed Burley
Ed Burley

You've been listening to the Clinton News Network again.

Chenyn Allen
Chenyn Allen

This makes WAAAY too much sense. THIS is America, the children must be entertained.

Liberty Maldonado
Liberty Maldonado

The moderator should have a button that turn a off each microphone...

Chuck Bryant
Chuck Bryant

The circus gets better ratings than talking about "boring policy issues"

Josh Mecham
Josh Mecham

Independent huh? More like democrat! Just keep name calling

Paul Lillebo
Paul Lillebo

Well, Carl, your ideas are fine, except that they ignore the nature of our "news" media. Competition among the media has driven them to the lowest common denominator. Newspapers, TV news, internet - their standard for news is celebrity, disaster, and scandal. In order to sell a "debate" they need to make it sensational. The moderators' idiotic questions of the debaters are oriented to this standard. There's no chance whatever of them changing this pattern unless they find something new that they can make even more money on.

Carlston Solar
Carlston Solar

3 The moderator should ask real question, not just throw loaded insults at trump for Fox news ratings