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.
- In place of an opening statement, what are the three most important professional positions you have held that qualify you to be president?
- 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.
- 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.