John Dickerson talks with readers about improving presidential debates.

John Dickerson talks with readers about improving presidential debates.

John Dickerson talks with readers about improving presidential debates.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 17 2007 5:16 PM

Debating the Debates

John Dickerson chats with readers about how to fix the presidential forums.

Chief political correspondent John Dickerson was online at Washingtpost.com on Thursday, May 17, to discuss and take ideas about how to improve on the format of the shallow and mostly boring debates the 2008 presidential races have produced thus far. An unedited transcript of his chat follows.

John Dickerson: Greetings everyone. I'm looking forward to the chat about the debates, how to fix them, or politics in general.

_______________________

Minneapolis: I'm really excited for the 2012 debates, which should be starting in January or so. How about you? Seriously, what's the point of having a debate some eight months before any votes are cast?

John Dickerson: I take your point. Politics is like Christmas sometimes—it starts earlier every year. But I'm a fan of debates. I think if they're done right they can be public discussions about our important issues. Not only can we talk about the issues that matter, but we can think through the qualities we want in a leader by watching debates—and I think that's great. Of course, the debates have to be done right.

Advertisement

_______________________

Rochester, N.Y.: Do debates matter at all in the era of the freak show? Won't it all come down to who Chris Matthews thinks is "strange," who "screamed" at a rally, and who you'd rather have a beer with? And won't we be told in 2008 that the Republican candidate—regardless of who it is—is more authentic anyway?

John Dickerson: It's a good point. The freak show can completely overtake the process, but you could argue that if we take the debates seriously—which means holding serious debates—they can break down the freak show by offering an opportunity for everyone to behave like calm and rational adults.

_______________________

Advertisement

Cherry Hill, N.J.: I think the format should be changed. Get rid of the folks asking questions, because they waste half the available time. Each person gets a 30 second opening statement, then we go down the line again and this time each candidate gets one minute to say anything they like, and so on. Candidates can do a better job with their jabs and barbs than the suit from FOX or anyone else. I would reserve five minutes at the end for questions from the audience—this way each candidate can summarize. Finally, I believe the voters are equally endowed with common sense, and represent more fully the TV and print audience. Thank you for your thoughts.

John Dickerson: All of those ideas sound totally reasonable. I'm not ready to chuck the moderators, though. I'm not just saying that because I hope to be one some day—I think the Fox guys this week did a great job making the candidates speak to the questions and not duck. They forced the candidates to be more clear and did a little fact-checking. That's a useful function.

_______________________

Anonymous: Last week's "Saturday Night Live" got it right: you want to get people to watch the debates? You include the fringe candidates, not exclude them. Who wouldn't want to watch Mitt Romney debating with the candidate of the Vampire Party?

Advertisement

John Dickerson: The fringe candidates certainly help. Congressman Paul certainly spiced up this week's Republican debate, and Dennis Kucinich pushed Barack Obama in the first Democratic debate to be more clear about his position on the use of military force.

_______________________

San Francisco: Why aren't candidates asked who they'd appoint to key positions if elected? We're certainly learning a lot about crony capitalism from the current crop—who's on the potential presidents' appointments lists?

John Dickerson: It's a good question. We've learned a lot about candidates from asking them the Supreme Court question.

Advertisement

_______________________

Los Osos, Calif.: Politics lite? How about stopping the money machines and having some hour-long, one-on-one interviews with the real questions being asked?

John Dickerson: When I wrote my story I got a lot of suggestions like this. Make the conversations smaller and also take them off the networks and air them on C-SPAN or PBS.

_______________________

Advertisement

Washington: It seems that each GOP candidate actually answered few questions. With that said, the format allowed a lower-tier candidate, such as Mike Huckabee, to propel himself to the top tier with his Edwards comment. What do you think can be done for the viewers to get more from each candidate?

John Dickerson: I think it's inevitable that there will be little quips like that. I think some number of them are okay—they tend to make things amusing and change the pace if they are offered in moderation. I think the way you keep people from acting like clowns though is by asking serious questions and asking candidates to get very specific. So in that case let Huckabee make his joke, but then say "okay Governor, tell me what specific ways you're going to take on non-Defense discretionary spending."

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: A direct question for Messrs. Brownback, Huckabee and Tancredo:

Advertisement

"Medical advances are likely to play a key role in the solution of this nation's health care problems. Almost without exception, scientists and researchers who have brought us the life-enhancing and life-saving miracles of recent decades have used evolutionary biology as one of the central underpinnings and inspirations for their knowledge of how physical life works. Given that you apparently believe these people are misguided, would you prefer to see them abandon such concepts during the course of their work—for the good of the country?"

(And spank them when they dodge, please.)

John Dickerson: It's a great question. Some people might think it's a gotcha question but I like questions like this because it gets candidates to think out loud, and I think the more we can watch our candidates think out loud the better.

_______________________

Los Angeles: It seems that often the question, which is quite direct ("Do you agree that the war in Iraq is already lost?") is not the question that is answered. It is brushed aside in favor of comfortable talking points. Should we be disturbed about this? I am. But perhaps this is the norm in political debates. Is it?

John Dickerson: This specific answer depends on the party, of course. Republicans mostly don't think it is lost or don't want to say that out loud anyway. I would prefer questions about Iraq that tell us something about how the next president will handle Iraq when he or she comes into office. I understand that a question like this forces a candidate to deal with a basic fundamental fact, but I find most Iraq questions do so little to illuminate that I'd like to come up with some that show us how a candidate thinks about the Middle East, the threat from jihadists and the use of military power in the future.

_______________________

Why even debate?: It sure appears to me that whether the election were held tomorrow or in November 2008, it won't matter a hoot about the many hours of debates ahead of time because all we want is Bush out and a Democrat in. Then, oh then ... months, maybe even a year later, we'll all be sitting around the water cooler saying "Why did we elect this person as president?" Which leads to ... another debate!

John Dickerson: There's plenty of reason to be frustrated with the debates but I think a well designed debate can tell us something about the candidates and offer the best chance to get a look at the way they think, process information and use their imagination. Fox tried a scenario on the candidates this week, which I thought was interesting. I'm a fan of the old Fred Friendly seminars, which did a similar thing with policymakers. I'd like to see an entire debate devoted to a single scenario in which candidates not only had to give their views but show us how they would go about forming those views. Who would they ask questions of? Who would they want around them? What personal experience would they draw on?

_______________________

Chicago: Overall, there should be greater accountability for the answers. First, when candidates stray from the topic the moderator should not feel the least bit shy about saying so. Too often I feel that the hosts are overly passive to the candidates; they can remain respectful while still demanding answers to their questions. Second, I would suggest follow-ups from audience members. I don't want to see this to become an "American Idol" style format where people vote on their favorite candidates (that will come soon enough in Iowa); however, I would enjoy it if audience members submitted questions and then were asked by the moderator to say (on the spot) whether they were satisfied with the answers the candidates gave. The candidate should be compelled to respond to that "critique." That is the kind of back-and-forth that I would find useful.

John Dickerson: I totally agree. I'd love a debate with fact-checking or moderators or audience members who tell candidates they're ducking. I think a panel of judges giving the candidates marks at the end also would be just fine. Perhaps there could be a panel that watches and one that just reads the answers on paper. I think awards for excessive pandering, massive falsehoods and cheapest evasion should also be given to perhaps shame candidates into acting like adults.

_______________________

San Francisco: Why not have the last non-President in the other party ask the questions of the candidates? That would be Bob Dole asking the Democrats questions—surely his partisanship and wit would be entertaining; and John Kerry asking the GOP.

John Dickerson: It sounds like a good idea to me. I think perhaps it would be better to get a wise man from each party to do it though. The past nominees are too highly political. I'd like the opposite party question pickers to be a little less political.

_______________________

San Francisco: Well, the FOX News thing was insipid and worshipful, the Chris Matthews event at the Reagan Library was all-too-Reagan-centric, and the Democratic debate was a Brian Williams snarkfest.

Why not have 45 minute one-on-ones, across party lines, all day long? The cable network carrying the current 90-minute format already devotes the entire day to warm-up anyway; let's have the candidates actually debate each other, as they did in France (no need to tell the GOP that's the inspiration!) Wouldn't you pay good money for a McCain/Kucinich matchup or a Rudy/Gravel debate? I certainly would!

John Dickerson: I disagree about Fox—I think they did a good job. I don't see how you get to insipid and worshipful. I think across party lines makes good sense. I also think more debates or debating time is a good idea. That would take some of the pressure off, too, so candidates actually could think a little more calmly.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.:"Some candidates appeared ready to do the torturing themselves." I just wanted to say that I enjoyed the observational humor in your piece.

John Dickerson: Thank you Bethesda!

_______________________

Laurel, Md.: Do the candidates think of their debate participation as more directed toward the nomination or the general election? It's widely believed that Giuliani and Edwards might be do better in the general election than the primaries (like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Joe Lieberman won in non-traditional elections). Are these debates set up to play to the base, or the broad electorate?

John Dickerson: It depends on the candidate. It's a mix mostly. There's no clear frontrunner on either side who is so far ahead they can afford to think only about the general. But clearly McCain and Giuliani are making general election appeals more than Romney, and Hillary is playing a more general election game than Edwards.

_______________________

Mt. Lebanon Pa.: Ditto on the Fred Friendly style for public debate. Then again, 'ol Fred wasn't exactly avuncular when he garroted folks at CBS when he ran it. Maybe we should have the public hold the round table with members of the media sitting around it. Then we can ask them how much they really know! About everything. Thanks much from a political atheist.

John Dickerson: I'd be down for that kind of debate and that's kind of what Fred did in those seminars, which were more about getting people to think out loud than they were a fact-based test.

_______________________

Chicago: Pundits and the public bemoan the fact that candidates speak in 30-second sound bites, but aren't the "debates" (as currently formatted) part of the problem? Too much value seems to be placed on seeing whether the candidates can answer these "rapid-fire" questions and on keeping them confined to this tight time-frame. The current format doesn't allow for voters to hear details of candidates' plans or agendas ... only a quick summation of the top two-three lines from their talking points. I think it would be valuable to hear a candidate be told you need to speak for a minimum of ten minutes on an important policy issue ... assuming they stick to the point and do not filibuster with non-germane rhetoric or platitudes.

John Dickerson: I agree, and I think you can convince candidates to participate in more thoughtful debates by offering them these kinds of opportunities. So I'd say maybe a debate in segments: one for questions from a panel, one for brief statements on whatever topic a candidate wants and then a third segment where we fact-check what the candidates said in segment one. Maybe they'd buy into such a debate if they were offered the middle section, which would allow them to make their case without a filter.

_______________________

Chicago: Here's my idea: Do away with the moderator all together—in fact, do away with the rules, do away with the format. Instead, put all of the candidates on stage, in front of a national television audience, and tell them to figure it out for themselves. These are eight or ten people who claim they are qualified to lead the free world. Okay, you're a leader? Then organize yourself and your fellow candidates into a forum that will work. I think that would tell us a lot.

Who takes the initiative to determine who stands at what podium? Which candidate stands to the side and waits for the others to figure it out? Does Richardson suggest they all negotiate to see who gets the first question? Do Obama and Clinton suggest it go to the candidates with the highest book royalties? Does Biden suggest it be based on seniority in Congress? Which is the candidate who recommends they have follow-up questions? Who prefers that they take questions from the audience, and who objects? Does the debate work at all—or is it a flop?

John Dickerson: I love this idea—put microphones on all of them so we'd hear everything they say. I wish I'd had this idea when I was writing my piece. Of course the candidates would never go for it.

_______________________

Westcliffe, Colo.: And we could start by having an old time "Meet the Press" format where an engineer, scientist, lawyer, physician and a couple of others ask the candidates how much they know about matters animal, vegetable and mineral. Then correct them when they get it wrong! Kind of like College Bowl, with the losers getting publicly humiliated instead of free scholarships for consolation.

John Dickerson: I'd rather see a debate where the candidates had to solve a problem using experts than one that tested them on facts they knew. No president will know all of the facts—they'll need to ask experts and make a call. That's the thing we should be looking for. Do they ask people who are opposed to their party's view? Do they probe or ask limp questions they already know the answers to? There's this phony moment in every candidate profile (believe me I know, I've written them) where someone who works for the candidate talks about their probing insightful questions. This is usually spin. I'd like to see them be probing and thoughtful in public.

_______________________

Seattle: Hello John—thanks for taking questions. A quick look at the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (our ideal of debates gone right?) shows: There were a series of debates, not a hodgepodge of one-off events; each debate had a single specified topic, and the debaters kept each other on-topic; the debates focused on the important subjects of the day and ignored peripheral issues; there was no artificial time limit imposed by television—no television means no sound bites, so the arguments needed to be logical and thorough; there was no moderator—the debaters questioned each other, addressed each other, kept each other on topic, and prevented mindless recital of talking points.

It seems the favorite moments of the "modern" so-called debates (really, joint press conferences) are when the debaters break their own rules and speak directly to each other. What do you think, any lessons to be learned here?

John Dickerson: This is a great idea though probably too hard to copy in a ten-man field. But for the general election I think it's a great solution. Candidates might ask zinger questions at first but after a while they'd stop because they'd look foolish if all they asked of their opponent were silly set up questions.

_______________________

Springfield, Mo.: How is the debate field expected to continue? Is it likely that all eight candidates we saw last night will continue to make up the panel?

John Dickerson: I think so. There might be some smaller non-sanctioned debates, but the big ones will have everyone. Here's an idea I like: Take the third-tier candidates and hold a debate with the kinds of rules we've been talking about—longer answers, scenarios, fact-checking. The format would produce drama and the long-shot candidates would be willing to participate in the high-risk event because, well, they are long-shot candidates.

_______________________

Hollywood, Calif.: How to attract more viewers to presidential debates: after each question, viewers phone in and eliminate one of the candidates.

John Dickerson: This sounds good to me or allow them to vote while its going on. Fox tried a version of this with the Tuesday debate. I think Ron Paul was voted the winner.

_______________________

Maplewood, N.J.: The debates would be improved if they adopted the Chris Matthews "raise your hand if you don't believe in evolution" methodology. Follow up questions are not allowed. The candidates never speak. Just a yes or no gesture to questions regarding key issues or core beliefs.

John Dickerson: As much fun as has been made of the hand-raising it certainly forced candidates to give yes-or-no answers which is a start.

_______________________

Washington: Here's what will make it interesting—have every candidate wear a boxy lump between their shoulder blades under their jackets, and before answering a question they can cock their heads as if listening to something!

John Dickerson: I am actually doing this right now. The boxy lump is a little uncomfortable though.

_______________________

Re: Interviews: Interviews are too scripted and friendly to produce the testing of a candidate's wit and ability to think on their feet. That's really what we need to see more in debates. Also, we need to see more debates in general besides the two to three incredibly scripted debates that happen each October after months of negotiating between the candidates' staffs.

John Dickerson: Yes, the general election debates are the absolute worst thing in the world. I think we should pin candidates down in the primaries where they're more likely to agree to lots of debates than once they get the nomination, where they'll get more conservative.

_______________________

Boston: I know it is not to do with the debates, but do you think Bush referred to Blair as a "dogged" leader on purpose? That seems too subtle a joke for the man. I'm sure the press in England will appreciate it though.

John Dickerson: I didn't see him say that. I agree with you—Bush wasn't making a poodle joke. And you're also right the Brit press will have a lovely time with that.

_______________________

Fortaleza, Brazil: Well, I found the debate informative. Giuliani pointed out that he had lived through the 9/11 attacks. Who knew? He is so reticent to talk about it. I guess several million other people also lived through it and some risked their lives to save others, but no matter. Through a combination of Paul's narrow statement (seemed to address just 9/11) and Giuliani's retort (guaranteed to get applause) we lost an opportunity to hear a reasoned discussion of the repercussions of U.S. actions in other regions, including the Middle East (e.g. putting the Shah of Iran into power, arming the Afghan guerillas, supporting Saddam Hussein for years, opposing Palestinian statehood for years). There could be honest differences about the repercussions of such actions and whether the actions should be viewed now as mistakes or not, but we cannot (well, should not) ignore the fact that our actions may have an impact for years to come. That is not the same thing as saying we invited the 9/11 attacks.

John Dickerson: I agree.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: Direct question for every GOP candidate besides John McCain: "The overwhelming consensus in the climatology community is that the currently observed changes in climate will become a major threat to our way of life, and are driven almost entirely by human activity. However, many in your party—like recent outgoing chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee James Inhofe—still publicly insist the whole thing is a "hoax." Are the climatologists correct, or is Sen. Inhofe?"

(And spank them when they dodge, please.)

John Dickerson: I think that question allows for too much room to duck. Maybe another way: "What should every American do to change their behavior to improve the climate situation." To answer is to accept the premise. To debate the premise is to take a position. To agree that humans contribute but have no suggestions is to show cluelessness.

_______________________

Scottsdale, Ariz.: Isn't there some way there could be real debates? I'm thinking back to the ones that the League of Women Voters used to sponsor. I would suggest: fewer questions, more time to answer and more give-and-take. With all the money the networks and sponsors are raking in on political commercials, they should at least give us back some substance.

John Dickerson: I'm with you. The networks pay no penalty for not giving substantive debates though, I don't think.

_______________________

John Dickerson: Okay, that does it for me. Thanks everyone for your questions. Bye.