Have debates outlived their usefulness?

This has been a pretty tough year to be a moderator or questioner in a political debate. So far Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw, and Jim Lehrer have been fairly ineffective — bordering on disinterested — in getting the presidential and vice presidential candidates to answer the questions they’ve been asked. And the questions themselves — other than “What don’t you know what’s your plan for knowing it” have been generally lacking in imagination.

In the Minnesota Senate debate on Saturday night, the KARE 11 and Star Tribune questioners wasted almost 90 minutes asking the same questions that were asked a week earlier, and, not surprisingly, they got the same answers.

In most cases, in fact, the best questions have been the ones the audience — not the moderators — asked (in the last presidential debate, the majority of questions came from online submissions).

On Saturday night, the best question was one that asked the three candidates what book or film inspired them. Norm Coleman went with the tried-and-true answer: Profiles in Courage. Al Franken selected “A Bright Shining Lie” and Dean Barkley selected “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

An even better audience question was the one that told us the most about the candidates. Asked what current Supreme Court justice he admires most, Dean Barkley couldn’t seem to remember any of them and took a pass.

But what’s really surprising is that over three hours of questioning by moderators, only subject areas were approached: The bailout (certainly a significant issue), creating jobs, Social Security, energy independence, nukes in Iran, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What other issues are still sitting out there? Education? Funding special needs mandates. Immigration. Stem cell research. Or the one issue that the people taking our Select A Candidate quiz have said is their most important issue: health care. Minnesota is, technically, an ag state. There must be issues of interest to agricultural interests other than ethanol.

The next Senate debate is Thursday night in Duluth. In the meantime, MPR’s Gary Eichten is giving people the chance to question voters directly. Yesterday it was Norm Coleman. Today it’s Al Franken. Dean Barkley was on last Friday.

Generally speaking, the political debates have broken little new ground. Have they outlived their usefulness? Have the negotiations with candidates and debate sponsors wrung the very life out of them?

  • Bob Moffitt

    I think my expectations are pretty low for these events, so I’m not as easily frustrated or upset by the answers (or lack of answers) as some.

  • JohnnyZoom

    >> Have [political debates] outlived their usefulness?

    Of course not.

    Of course, it would be nice to actually have a political debate this election year. [g]

  • You know I was, at one point, looking forward to the presidential debates. Until I heard there where only going to be 3, and only 90 minutes each. How can 270 minutes cover the range of topics we should be hearing about.

    I like the idea of 1 debate every 3 days with every other debate being an “Lincoln and Douglas” style.

    I like the Lincoln Douglas style becasue No questions from moderators, just a candidate and time to share views – so one candidate speaks for 60 minutes, then the other candidate speaks for 90 minutes, and then the first candidate allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.”

  • Elizabeth T

    Debates as they are currently formatted are pretty worthless. A story on MPR(?NPR) covered how the debates are structured. When commenting on the popular perception that Gwen Ifill wasn’t as ‘good’ as Tim Russert, whomever was being interviewed pointed out that she wasn’t allowed to be. The parties/candidates have so much influence to protect themselves from real public questions. Sure, opening questions to the general public will always provide ideologues who just want to have their personal choice vindicated by hearing yet again “I’ll be tough on crime” (or whatever).

    The debates as they have them now are pretty much a forum for the candidates to spout their “talking points” (c.f. Palin in the VP debate). Am I going to listen to the next one? No. I will go on-line to find a copy of the transcript to read. Infinitely easier to gloss over the ummm, uhhh, repetitive words and see where to pause to read. 90 minutes condensed into probably 30 min of reading.

    I want to see how the candidates respond to totally off-the-wall questions. Sure, be able to cut off the random idiot who gets to the microphone and asks offensive/repetitive questions or gets on a soap box. Bill Clinton’s response to some heckler (to the effect of ‘it’s my turn to talk) showed a flair for responding to the unexpected with composure. One need not be witty, simply graceful.

    Maybe they could solicit suggestions by email, categorize them by topic (health care, Iraq, education), and then nail the candidates with one randomly chosen from each group. Repeat cycle as many times as can be fit into one debate.

    Of course, we could just call each of them at 3:00 a.m. and see what kind of responses we get.

    Or ask our allies’ Heads of State (Brown, Merkel, Sarkozy etc.) to posit questions. Angela Merkle: “So, what are you going to do about the long-term troop commitment from other nations in Afghanistan?” I wouldn’t tell the candidate which ally asked the question, simply put them on the hot seat realizing that perhaps these questions are more than passing interest to an uninformed electorate. Or, even better, put those allies questions amongst voting Americans.

  • As I said on my blog, the way they are constructed is indeed useless. They are set up the way they are because the campaigns have a lot of input into how they are done. The goal of each campaign is to neutralize the effect of a debate because the environment is much harder to control. They want the election to come down to the things that they can control easily, so everyone seeks to render the debates useless. Thus, they are.

    This is not a surprise, folks. I don’t care what format we use – the result will be the same. More aggressive moderation might help, but we will not have candidates really listing their positions on issues in an uncontrolled way.

    That is, unless the voters insist on it. In a Democracy, we get the leadership we deserve. We used to deserve better. U

    Useless debates are only a symptom of the real problem and that problem was discussed here a few days ago under the guise of why Americans are bad at math. We’re bad at math and we have lousy debates because intelligence is considered a sign of limited social ability.

    For the essays I mentioned, click on my name to get to my blog “Barataria”. Search for “Debatable” and “Leadership”. Thanks.

  • bsimon

    “Have the negotiations with candidates and debate sponsors wrung the very life out of them?”

    Pretty much. Debates could be much more interesting than they are, but the candidates are so worried about them being interesting they negotiate away most of their potential to actually enlighten.

    What would be interesting is if the moderators demonstrated as little respect for the ‘rules’ as the candidates. If Brokaw had said “you guys aren’t following the rules, so I won’t either” he could have forced the issue & much more proactively pointed out when the candidates dodged questions. Same goes for Ifill.

  • What does it say that the “majors” in the news room ask the same questions as the earlier debate? Did they not listen or attend? Did the candidates not give good enough answers last week, how did they ask the question to get a different response?

  • Bob Collins

    Brian, I think you highlight the dangers of the “media partner.” Since KARE 11 didn’t broadcast the previous debate, it likely didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. Of course — for inexplicable reasons — the first debate wasn’t televised in the Twin Cities. And only an hour of Saturday’s debate was televised because otherwise, Knight Rider would’ve had to have been pre-empted. So the TV viewers didn’t see the best of the questions.

    Ideally, you’d like to see each debate used as a springboard for the subsequent debate

  • JRyan

    The non-debate debates were never a problem when the League of Women Voters ran them. Now, we have a corporate debate system, controlled by a corporation that was formed by the two major political parties. Hence the whining by moderators that “this is the format you (the candidates) insisted on and signed onto” during this year’s debates.

    There also used to be a panel of people who moderated, if I am remembering correctly.

    It used to be that other parties and independent candidates would be included in the debates, which was also a reasonable, more informative format. Third party and independent candidates’ presence resulted in some extra pressure being put on major party candidates, to at least make an effort to answer the questions.

    The other change that skewed the contemporary political discourse in the US was the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine.

    Ever since the League of Women Voters pulled out of the debates because of manipulation of the process by the Democrats and Republicans, and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the quality of debates and discourse have gone down hill.

    Way down hill.

    Go to:


    if you are interested in finding out how you can participate in the movement to reform the presidential debates.

  • Richard Rorty

    I am disappointed that Debate Minnesota departed from their usual format, which emphasizes depth over breadth. Fewer topics covered at greater length is what we need to have anything close to a “debate” and to learn something about how the candidates actually think. My guess is that the candidates insisted on this joint press conference format. Debate sponsors and the news media should push back.