In all fairness, however, what we call debates are anything but, for a debate requires extensive discourse, going into the substance of great issues and coming to grips with them and offering solutions. That takes time to discuss and the proponents of each side can't offer much when there is a moderator who only cares about a two minute time clock and how he can get the best sound bytes to excite the viewing audience. So, if we really are serious about having real debates on real issues, a much different and more extensive format must be designed where the moderator merely keeps the contestants from going after each other instead of avoiding the real issues and actions from a true perspective. So, how do we come up with such a process?
All we have to do is look at our past and no example is better than one which took place in the late summer and early fall of 1858 in Illinois. A seasoned United States Senator, Stephen Douglas, was being challenged by a little known Republican opponent, the tall and lanky Abraham Lincoln. Not much was known about Lincoln, a young lawyer in Springfield, but Douglas figured the debate would do him good and so a series of seven debates around the state was scheduled. Now in those days, Senators were selected by state legislators to represent the interests of their state government in Washington, D.C. Today, of course, Senators often spend most of their time on issues unrelated to the state and perhaps that is why state's rights are so ignored, but that is a topic for a different post. The debates were set up and began with the first candidate speaking for an hour, his competition speaking for an hour and a half, then contestant one could rebut his opponent for thirty minutes and that ended it. The first speaker clearly had an advantage since he had the rebuttal capability, but each debate rotated turns in each following debate. This meant that at the end of the process, Douglas had the advantage, with four starts out of seven while Lincoln had three, yet it was deemed appropriate since Douglas was the position incumbent.
By the end of the series of debates, voters had a clear understanding of the candidate positions on all major issues, for the large number of debates as well as the stories written in Illinois papers all over the state spread the news. Then these citizens could use the information to determine who to vote for to the state legislature. And on election day, the results were mixed. Republicans did better than expected for the state Senate but the Democrats still held the majority and, naturally, they selected Douglas. But Lincoln became well known, ultimately became the 1860 Republican candidate for President, and we all know the rest of the story. And looking back today, it is easy to see how our modern politics has so watered down the political system and has cheapened the process. So, what are we going to do about it?
Well, the first thing to be done is to scrap the election commission and create a new process using Lincoln-Douglas as a guiding example. After all, the commission has already crippled this year's debates, so the opportunity to make major change is now present. Perhaps the way to do it is to select a small panel of real historical scholars, divided equally between liberal and conservative viewpoints to draw up a blueprint and present it to the leadership of the two major parties and ask for concurrence in establishing a new debate system. Two chair persons, one Democrat and one Republican of the mold of the actual party, not the leadership element, should be appointed. Then moderators would be evaluated by the scholars by viewpoint so that no ideology could have total control over the selection process. Each debate could then have two co-moderators, offering questions in rotational sequence so that no one viewpoint could have control of the process. The result would be less restrictive subject matter questions offering the opportunity to challenge the candidates while offering a more freewheeling question process which would allow more substance and less external control. I think when Americans saw it they would recognize its value and we'd be well on our way to a much more valuable means for candidates to show the public who they really are and what they stand for. It works for me and I think it will much more likely work for you.
And in the event that one of the parties balked at having a fair process, something which we haven't had in many generations, I would say the alternative is no debates at all. In such a case, the electorate would probably create such a howl for debates that agreement might be necessary for both parties or suffer the damnation of the voters come election day and the other benefit would be the provision of good and accurate information on both points of view for the voters. Now that is an end result definitely worth striving for. God bless you and have a marvelous day.