The trouble with political debates isn’t the candidates.
Sure, most of them never say anything interesting, often because they’re not very interesting people. But they were born that way, so it’s not their fault they’ve never uttered anything resembling a provocative comment.
The real problem with these contrived events is the moderators (generally chosen because they’re even blander than the candidates), the questions (generally softball repeats of stuff that’s already been discussed to death in the media), and the rules (generally formulated to prevent anything spontaneous or revealing from occurring). In other words, debates are designed so there’s no chance they’ll help you decide how to vote.
Although, there is strong evidence they’ll help you sleep.
Several years ago (back when I was still concealing what a cynical jerk I am), I moderated a number of debates, and I quickly discovered that most of the rules—strict time limits on answers, no interrupting, no weapons—were stifling what was supposed to be happening. Which was actual debate.
Instead, we got ever-so-polite social occasions filled with genial chitchat. Like a senior-citizen book club, only not so interesting.
No responsible debate-sponsoring entity wants to be accused of sensationalism. But if the organizers of these straight-laced exercises in hypocrisy really intended to provide some insight into the participants’ thinking, they’d allow a little anarchy. Let the debaters hog the microphone. Let them wander wildly off topic. Let them shout each other down. I’m not even opposed to punches being thrown.
I can already hear the League of Women Voters and other self-appointed guardians of civility objecting strenuously (but, of course, courteously) to these suggestions. They’ll claim we currently have too much of this sort of brutish behavior in both Washington and Augusta, where it contributes to gridlock and other blockages of the governmental bowels. Apparently, they believe the best way to deal with the barbarians who control Congress and the Legislature is to elect a bunch of wimps hampered by their obsession with etiquette.
These misguided do-gooders seem to be laboring under the delusion that the purpose of debates is to provide an enlightened forum for mush. In reality, the reason for debates—as with any other form of confrontation, such as baseball games, wars, and court battles over alimony—is to win. Once one grasps that concept, preparing for the event becomes much simpler.
Do away with podiums. Serve beer. Forget about suits and ties. Let the audience scream insults and hurl produce. Take bets on the outcome. In short, make debates less like church sermons and more like mixed martial arts.
Consider how these modest changes would improve this year’s major races.
Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, trailing badly in the polls, would be rethinking his strategy of demanding 16 debates with Republican incumbent Paul LePage and Democratic challenger Mike Michaud. After one round in which LePage, reinforcing his street-brawler image, explains his welfare policies by applying brass knuckles to the Cutler schnozzola, Eliot would be leaning toward a more limited number of engagements. When Michaud, recalling his blue-collar roots, argues in favor of increasing the minimum wage by chasing Cutler around the ring with a forklift, he’ll consider declining all future debate invitations.