I chose not to watch the first presidential debate. I did so because I was angry that no third-party candidates would even be given a shot despite Phillips and the YWCA pulling out from sponsorship. I missed the vice-presidential debate because I was busy and cannot multitask to save my life. I had assumed the debates were largely unproductive and mostly about pandering, but I felt bad making this assumption without even seeing a debate. To that end, I watched the second presidential debate, in all of its town hall glory.
In a typical debate, each candidate stands behind a podium. The podiums are separated by a reasonable width and elevated on a stage. The moderator sits facing the stage but with his or her own larger desk and is close enough to the candidates for effective communication. The moderator reads off questions about the big issues of the day and each candidate gets two minutes or so to respond to the question. There are usually some other rules for rebuttals, admissible content, conduct, etc., but this is the general idea. It’s a highly imperfect format, and the time limits and civility are only as useful as the moderator enforcing them.
The second presidential debate threw aside this apparently elitist, pedantic setup and organized a true debate for the people. No more podiums; the candidates sat in high chairs, with one of their legs on the ground and the other on their chair’s crossbeam. This forced them to slouch considerably, which is preferable because ... okay I don’t have a reason. No more stage; the new “stage” was a 10-foot radius circle of red carpeted no-man’s-land separating the candidates from the moderator. This way the candidates have to get up, walk toward the audience to answer the question (and pace while doing so), and then sit back down. If the other candidate wants to respond, he does the same thing. The candidates often looked like two sail boats coursing near each other but never colliding; they even got to point at each other WHILE walking past each other. … Again, I have no idea what purpose this could possibly serve other than maybe some good photos and video footage. No more pre-selected questions that the campaigns opted for beforehand. Now the questions are pre-screened (which I suppose is technically somewhat better) and either asked off Twitter (that’s right: Twitter) or asked by an audience member. Having an audience member ask a question, though often adding a more personal element, doesn’t actually change the substance of the question at all. In fact, it is likely done entirely for ratings purposes.
On paper these changes seem mostly stylistic and arguably detract further from the substance of the debate in the name of ratings and good sound bites. Indeed, this is exactly what happened with the debate. Both candidates looked incredibly unprofessional, the moderator Candy Crowley looked feeble while trying to maintain civility, and the audience members’ questions came off as stiff and robotic, adding nothing to the debate. The debate was a total fiasco; nobody really “won,” and the natural question to ask is: Why?
It is fair to point out that President Obama was perceived as weak during the first debate and he may have been trying to gain some ground by being more aggressive. Though this would explain some of the interrupting and bickering, I believe that the format contributed heavily to the problem. When two arguing people are separated by podiums and a set distance (by being expected to stay behind said podiums), tempers flare relatively slowly. When two people who are accustomed to winning are allowed to move right next to each other, get into each others’ faces and accuse each other of being anything from a liar to incompetent, tempers flare rapidly. This problem is exacerbated by pre-screened questions that are pointed in nature. One question, in essence, was “How are you different from George W. Bush?” When one candidate has been president for four years, it’s fairly obvious that the question is meant entirely for Romney. It’s the sort of jab that proves frustrating in a debate, and shouldn’t be coming from a supposedly neutral party.
The format issues could have easily been corrected with a decent moderator. Crowley proved to be an ineffective moderator who lacked the commanding presence necessary to keep either candidate from going way over time. The necessity of a skilled moderator is pretty much common to any format short of a Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” feature, and Crowley failed miserably in the role of moderator. The good news is that Bob Schieffer will be moderating the third debate. He did a good job in 2008 with McCain and Obama. All I can say for certain is this: If the third debate proves as insulting as the second, we may have to (gasp!) consider that a third-party candidate may inject some intellectual seriousness into the debate. We may have to consider that the Commission on Presidential Debates only consists of Republicans and Democrats, and that they are ultimately invested in maintaining this status quo.
Or we can keep on pretending these debates are useful. Your call.
Michael Cook is a Pratt senior. His column runs every other Monday.