Jim Lehrer can’t be blamed for Barack Obama’s listless showing in his first debate against Mitt Romney last Wednesday night. But neither should the misguidedness of last week’s pig pile on Lehrer exempt his own hapless performance from scrutiny. Let’s face it, Lehrer has been a menace to American democracy for decades: Jack Shafer called him out in Slate sixteen years ago for his frustrating conduct in running the Clinton-Dole debates of 1996; in 2000, Lehrer’s insistence on telling the American public that there were no differences between Al Gore and George Bush, Jr., on the question of a patients’ bill or rights resulted in the sorry spectacle of Gore replying, quite correctly, that only he and not his rival supported the bill in question.
Lehrer, however, is only the worst offender of a debate structure that has long encouraged unsatisfying exchanges. I realize that would-be reformers of the debate process risk coming across as League of Women Voters do-gooders, naively proposing ambitious overhauls that the parties will never accept (they keep coming back to Lehrer, after all). But it’s worth noting that the “single-moderator” format of recent election cycles has not always been a staple of the debates, and that experimentation with the design of the programs is not unheard of. It may be time to junk the format we have and start afresh.
A simple idea would be to return to a panel instead of an individual. Historically, most debates have had panels of questioners. Sometimes the questions have collaborated fruitfully to make sure a range of topic was covered. At times they have gotten each other’s backs—as when in 1988 they tag-teamed vice presidential aspirant Dan Quayle with queries about his unreadiness for high office, leading him to liken himself to John F. Kennedy. At a minimum, the variety of voices and faces and perspectives brought to the debates of the 1970s and 1980s a liveliness that 90 minutes with Jim Lehrer, or even Candy Crowley, is unlikely to produce.
But it’s more than the single moderator that should go. It’s also that the tyranny of television pundits and anchors must end. Trained as they are to report on the news of the day in short segments, usually shorn of deep context or analysis, they typically ask questions that center on a narrow range of issues or the pseudo-scandal of the day, all the while purveying inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom. When the television networks conspired with the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns in 1960 to stage the first general-election debates (it’s often forgotten that there had been primary debates before), the campaigns insisted that print reporters join the panels of questioners, alongside the TV anchors. But while newspaper reporters sometimes made it onto the panels in subsequent years, all but one debate was moderated by a TV personality. The exception came in 1976, when Jim Hoge, then editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, moderated the vice presidential debate between Walter Mondale and Bob Dole.
Alas, the addition of print journalists might improve the debates is probably not sufficient to bring noticeable change to the contests. Since the debates began, the authority of not only the broadcast journalists but also of print reporters has dissipated in the cacophony of countless pundits on umpteen cable channels. As respect for the press in general has waned, voters no longer look to political reporters as their thoughtful, disinterested proxies in interrogating the candidates. Now all journalists are seen as missionaries from inside the beltway.
The only significant improvement to the process made in the last four decades came in 1992. Bill Clinton’s citizen-oriented campaign and the insurgent candidacy of Ross Perot created a mood in which George Bush Sr. could not refuse Clinton’s proposal that one debate be in the form of a "town hall" meeting, which allowed so-called ordinary voters to ask questions. The results showed Bush’s reluctance, and Clinton’s eagerness, to have been well-founded. Clinton strode around the stage confidently, seeming to care about and understand the audience, while Bush hemmed and hawed in trying to figure out what a questioner meant when she asked how the deficit affected him personally. Other audience members called on the candidates to focus on the issues and stop the mudslinging—thus depriving Bush of his main strategy, which had been to impugn Clinton’s character and patriotism, as he had Michael Dukakis’s four years earlier. Clinton later explained his success to Jack Germond and Jules Witcover: “It’s a lot easier to be a good talker than a good listener. But in that format … I saw the American people sort of screaming for me to pay attention to them and listen to them.” Having real people ask the questions added a needed dose of authenticity to what had become tightly scripted affairs, and their queries on the whole were judged to be more substantive that the journalists’. Some scholars have suggested that they contributed to the spike in voter turnout that year.
The town-hall debates should remain, but they too have their shortcomings. Most people who suddenly find themselves on national television speaking to the next president naturally tend to wither and lob soft questions. Moreover, in the years after 1992 the candidates drafted rules to minimize the very spontaneity that made the citizen questions refreshing. As Alan Schroeder recounts in Presidential Debates, his thorough account of the contests since 1960, the “memorandum of understanding” that the candidates drew up in 2000 required questioners to submit their queries in writing beforehand. In 2004 they instructed the moderator to cut off anyone who deviated from the expected language.
All of which is to suggest a new tack altogether: replacing the journalists with real experts on the issues supposedly under debate. Not just anyone, but our most respected professionals who have devoted their lives to thinking about our social problems, our political system, and our relations with the rest of the world. They would bring to their task a deeper knowledge than the journalists possess; they would be more likely to avoid the familiar and unproductive topics du jour; they could press the candidates, not in the annoying faux-prosecutorial style of the Sunday TV hosts, but in a probing, professorial manner designed to draw out details and fresh thinking. The possibilities are endless. A domestic-policy debate panel could include experts on health care policy, education, crime, constitutional law, and welfare policy. A foreign-policy panel might contain regional experts on the Middle East or China, scholars of nuclear non-proliferation and genocide and human rights. Other panels might include political theorists, economists, sociologists, scientists, medical researchers—and, for that matter, novelists, artists, composers, playwrights, filmmakers, and poets.
There's always the risk that these panelists, trained by watching too much TV, would merely aspire to emulate the journalists and anchors who ask the questions now. But at a minimum they would bring new perspectives and approaches, make the debates more interesting to watch, and introduce a certain needed unpredictability. And in the ideal situation, they would bring substantive depth and launch a discussion that ventures beyond the prefabricated talking points.
The educational role of the debates has always been overrated. Their main purpose is not to help undecided voters make up their minds, but to allow voters to engage with a campaign that mostly unfolds in short news stories, ads, and other fragments of information. Gathering together to watch debates, discussing them with friends and colleagues the next day—this is the real importance of the political ritual that is the debates. But if we’re all gathering to watch, we should at least try to make them a little more interesting.