The current presidential debate format is in urgent need of a top-to-bottom revamp, regardless of whether the people debating on stage are Democrats or Republicans. Consider Tuesday night's CBS News Democratic debate, which is best characterized as a free-for-all of loud, overlapping, often incoherent sparring among candidates competing desperately for voter and donor attention. Lining up half a dozen or more candidates on stage and asking them to provide 90-second answers to complex questions yields nothing but high-pitch, rushed responses, often delivered with other candidates flailing their arms, interrupting and effectively distracting viewers from what the speaker is trying to say.
How does this format serve the candidates? How does it inform the voting public? Networks love it because a political slugfest boosts ratings. But it degrades a serious event into little more than a high-stakes reality TV show like "Survivor" or "The Bachelor." The sense of desperation among the competing candidates is palpable, as if they will try anything to avoid being eliminated before reaching the coveted final three.
Reality it is, but this is no game show. The future of our nation hangs in the balance, and this format only rewards those who refuse to conduct themselves with presidential dignity and aplomb. The louder the voice, the more rude and insistent the interruptions, the more the candidate comes off as bold and assertive.
But do Americans really want to base their votes on how rude the candidate can be? Donald Trump exploited this exact debate format in 2016 to bulldoze his way through a list of more than a dozen primary contenders. He managed to insult and belittle just about all of them, always playing to a television-watching base of supporters who confused abrasive, rude antics with presidential leadership. The format played to Trump's showmanship, giving him exactly the platform he needed to manipulate the masses and undercut his far more qualified opponents.
In the Democratic debates, voters are being forced to choose based on candidates' often incomprehensible barrages of statistics and radically oversimplified outlines of plans to address complex issues like health care, climate change, immigration, gun control or the war in Afghanistan. The effect is to make voters think difficult issues are easy to solve just because bullet-point solutions get blurted out in rapid-fire soundbites.
If you want to know what candidates really sound like when they can speak conversationally, try listening to long-form interviews or go back and watch YouTube excerpts of the calm, quiet debate that occurred in 2000 between the then-vice president candidates, Sens. Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Note the absence of flailing arms and loud interruptions. This is how debates should be conducted. The presidency is too important to be reduced to the current, ridiculous circus sideshow.
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