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What the Presidential Candidates Could Learn From High School Debaters

Tonight’s debate was bad for Barack Obama, but it was even worse for presidential debates themselves. It was boring, unfocused, and unquestionably unfair, insofar as Jim Lehrer failed to guarantee that the candidates got equal time. But it could not have been otherwise. The debate’s format—designed by the Commission on Presidential Debates, in consultation with the candidates—required that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney answer the questions put to them, in the time allotted. Big mistake.

But as any high school (or college) debater can tell you, the rigid rules—who speaks first and who speaks last; time limits that actually mean something; a small but carefully prescribed role for the moderator, or judge—are there for a reason. In my ten years as a scholastic debater and coach, I faced debaters from nearly every Anglophone country, from Canada to Kenya. When I began, we were as young as fourteen; in my last tournament, as a college senior, the winner, a balding Australian, was rumored to be thirty years old, still eligible through a combination of red-shirting and endless graduate classes. But one thing we all had in common, over all those years, was that if you’d let us drone on, we would.

And it’s not just because debate, like politics, attracts people who think they have all the answers and are eager to tell you about them. It’s also because, in the thick of a debate, you lose all sense of proportion. Every last statistic seems important, every attack by your opponent an unjustified slander that you simply must respond to. Those agonizing moments tonight when Obama begged for just one more minute from “Jim”? Of course he should have just stopped talking. Only once did he say something memorable after begging for the extra time: near the end, when he correctly noted that not every student can just borrow money from Mom or Dad.

But during a debate, the hardest thing to do is get a sense of proportion about all the different points pinballing back and forth. As a result, debaters, left to their own devices, will list every point they can remember (and a few more their advisors told them to drop in), and they will list them in a list-y way, with no sense that some matter more than others. They will, in effect, sound as Romney and Obama sounded tonight. It’s because there is no sense of drama or suspense in these debates, no peroration in which the debater lands on the truly important point, that presidential debates get fun only when one candidate zings, mocks, stabs, or knifes the other (or himself, in the case of Governor Perry). Absent those highlight-reel moments, a debate like tonight’s is a snooze.

High school and college competitions have several conventions to ensure that rounds don’t devolve into endless lists of bullet points. The first, simplest, and most crucial, is to strictly enforce time limits. When two minutes really means two minutes, the mind is concentrated, and the debater picks the one or two arguments that really matter. In scholastic debates, the judge is enforcement enough. They had authority, those stout, bearded men and prim, beak-nosed ladies, those social studies teachers from rival high schools. I trembled before them as nobody tonight trembled before Jim. In my day, one simply did not go beyond one’s allotted time.

But when the judge doesn’t scare anybody, there is another solution: when their time is up, just turn off their microphones. It will keep them on topic and on time, and it would be pretty funny to watch.

The second device presidential debates should adopt from scholastic debate is the strict topic. It sounds simple, but it’s not. The closest a presidential debate ever gets to a single, coherent topic is something like tonight’s “domestic issues.” In theory, domestic issues was further broken down into six “blocks,” which, for all the good they did, may as well have been called Thinkamajigs, or Topic Omelets. (Why Topic Omelets? Because maybe Jim Lehrer could have gotten to all six of them. Ponder that one.) Two about the economy, one about health care, and one on governing and another on governance?

Whatever it was, it was an obviously bad idea. If you’re going to have three debates, why not have the first be entirely on, say, health care? Such a debate would have naturally broken down into two sub-debates: Obamacare, and whatever Romn-aid would look like. Then, a couple weeks later, have the second debate be about taxes. The third could be about the American military power and defense spending.

Yes, if each debate had one strict topic, lots of topics would be neglected: education, Wall Street, the future of our planet what with climate change and the fact that I have about five years of foliage left and my kids won’t remember why it was once great to live in New England. But tonight’s debate was supposed to be about “domestic issues” broadly, and we all see how that worked out.

Finally, many styles of scholastic debates have specific periods for each debater to question the other. (The styles of debate that don’t allow “cross-ex” tend to permit copious heckling, which the American people are not ready for.) At one point tonight, “Jim” asked Romney if he wanted to direct a question toward Obama; it was a rather meek suggestion, more a polite request. Romney said he would like to, but then he never did. It seems to be presidential-debate dogma now that neither candidate should pose a direct question to the other. And one can see the logic: why invite your opponent to speak when you could hog the oxygen yourself?

But where time is set aside specifically for questions, debaters can be forced to ask questions. And if they are going to follow up with another question, they will have to listen to answers. The questioner controls those minutes, and can interrupt to correct a lie, or a roughly massaged truth. Cross-ex does not ensure delightful, illuminating exchanges, but it does have an elevating effect on the quality of discussion. And if it didn’t? Well, back to basics: turn their microphones off.

Mark Oppenheimer is the Beliefs columnist for The New York Times and the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. His most recent publication is an e-book about the life of Dan Savage.