How to Fix the Presidential Debates

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Since the conclusion of the last GOP Presidential debate that was held on the cable network CNBC – a truly dismal effort that left nobody satisfied with the outcome – there has been bellowing from pretty much everyone. Yes, the CNBC debate was a clusterfuck from the start – with three moderators and two guest questioners, it was never clear who was in charge – but once they became coalesced around an issue, the Republican debate participants struck back with veiled threats against the “mainstream media” (important point here:  if you’re going to govern a country as vast as the United States, you’re going to need that “mainstream media” at some point to get things done). It left the entire night as a giant stain on the 2016 Presidential campaign process.

The candidates complained about a multitude of things, including the length of the debate, the number of questions received, the quality of the questions and so forth. The moderators, in their defense, were faced with participants who, when presented with a viable question – such as Dr. Ben Carson’s involvement with the snake oil provider Mannatech, Senator Marco Rubio’s attendance in the Senate, how billionaire Donald Trump plans on paying for his myriad of xenophobic programs or why Senator Ted Cruz was against the recent compromise that passed a federal budget out of Congress and to President Barack Obama for the next two years – either didn’t answer the question, answered another question that they wanted to answer, waited for a partisan GOP audience to air their opinion through booing or attacked the moderators and the media. When you have this type of Mexican standoff (which Trump is now looking to wall off at Ciudad Juarez), there’s not much that is going to occur in said debate.

Now the candidates have decided to set up their own rules for how debates will be conducted. There is supposedly a letter that a majority of the 14 remaining candidates in the GOP race have gotten behind (bypassing the logical arranger for such events, their own Republican National Committee) that is being sent out, but it isn’t to be taken seriously. The letter supposedly would allow the candidates to vet the moderators, review the questions of the debate before it is conducted and such bullshit as whether there will be a gong, bell or buzzer to indicate their time is up when answering a question.

It was announced on Thursday night that next week’s debate on November 10 (which wasn’t expected to fall under this supposed “letter” being drafted) and being aired on Fox Business Channel will already have a smaller “main event” field. Through their criteria, Fox Business has chopped the “main event” debate stage down to eight, separating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee off to the “kiddie table” debate beforehand. That “kiddie table” debate has also been chopped, with former New York Governor George Pataki and current South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham being eliminated from the debates altogether. Those that are being dropped down or out completely are not polling at the prescribed levels by Fox Business and, as such, have met the axe as to the debates and probably will soon as a viable candidate in the GOP race.

As a result of some of these changes, get ready for more whining out of the GOP candidates. If the GOP candidates – and also their Democratic brethren – want a chance to take on a serious debate, replete with issues to discuss, then it would be necessary to follow these rules.

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Both Parties Must Have a Debate On Foreign Ground – The GOP is the only party who has stepped outside of their traditional “home turf” of Fox News (or Fox Business), where they could be semi-comfortable in that they would receive a decent hearing (even these GOP candidates, however, complained about the Fox News debate). The CNN GOP debate was considered to be quite good as the longest debate yet, providing for more discussion of the issues but not enjoyed by Trump or Carson, who lack the background to describe how their policies would work other than “they’ll be great.” By this point, you already know about the CNBC snafu. The Democratic Party hasn’t left its cozy home with CNN and their next “debate” – a candidates’ forum in South Carolina on Friday night that will feature former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and Lawrence Lessig have ended their campaigns since the first Democratic debate a couple of weeks ago) – will be hosted and aired by MSNBC and commentator Rachel Maddow.

Each party has their partisans; I would be more interested in how they speak to a hostile audience and, just maybe, both sides could have a chance at swinging those in the middle ground to some of their viewpoints (this would also help as far as governance, but that’s another story for another time).

The Arbiter Determines All – While one or two moderators is OK, one should be the rule. There should be only three questioners involved in the game and the participants in the debate have NO RIGHT to choose who they want to fire questions (why would I want to hear you and a “friendly” questioner lob softballs all night?). Finally, there will be one voice who makes all determinations on the floor of the debate hall – The Arbiter (usually a moderator would do this, but they are too encumbered by their own networks to draw in ratings and worried about any potential future dealings with the candidates to have the balls to do anything).

The Arbiter will be an unknown person, presumably with knowledge about debate procedure, the subjects that would be presented during the debate, the histories of the participants involved in the debate and should have as little involvement with one political side or the other or be in media as a current broadcaster (if it has to be, then The Arbiter should be from the opposing party or media outlet – couldn’t you imagine someone from the Wall Street Journal serving as The Arbiter for an MSNBC debate and someone from the New York Times handling the Fox debates?). The Arbiter will be in charge of officiating the event and providing the punishments (we’ll get to that in just a second) that will be meted out for violations of the debate protocol. At the end of the debate, The Arbiter slinks back into the dark, never known by those who were in attendance.

The Arbiter will have several weapons at his/her disposal:

Question Refusal – The Arbiter will have the right, after a question is posed, to determine if the question is worthy of being answered. Such questions as whether some other candidate has the “moral authority” to do something or something that prods two candidates to spat at each other over insignificant bullshit would be the main thing that The Arbiter is looking for. If a questioner poses such a question, the first infraction is a warning with a second infraction resulting in a 10-minute penalty (removal from the debate). A third violation will result in the questioner’s removal from the remainder of the debate.

Microphone Control – The Arbiter would have control over the candidates’ microphones for the purpose of keeping them on track with questions. If a candidate is posed a question and said candidate either starts off on a tangent or doesn’t address the question directly, The Arbiter has the power to cut the candidate’s microphone. The Arbiter will pause for five seconds before reactivating the candidate’s microphone and, if at any time during the candidate’s response he goes off topic again, The Arbiter will end the question by shutting off the microphone for the remainder of the question.

The Arbiter will also be in control of how long the candidate speaks; once the candidate has reached the maximum allotted time (60 seconds in the previous debates), The Arbiter will cut off the candidate’s microphone permanently unless asked a follow-up question.

If the candidate cannot keep on track with his replies to the questions being posed, The Arbiter will have the right to remove the candidate from the debate or, if the candidate refuses to move, will have his microphone cut off for the remainder of the debate and his/her constant interruptions will begin to annoy everyone.

Question Count – The Arbiter will be responsible for keeping a running count (can be aided on this by electronic timing of each candidate’s responses) or time bank on how many questions each candidate has received and/or how much time each candidate has been speaking. If The Arbiter notes a predominance of questions to a few candidates, then he will inform the moderator and the moderator must change tactics and ask other candidates questions until The Arbiter feels it is balanced out.

Have a Manageable Debate Field – This has been the major problem with the GOP debates is the number of people on the stage. When you have 10 candidates looking to make their mark in a two hour debate, the most a person is going to be able to speak is probably around seven or eight minutes (once you deduct commercials, opening and closing statements and audience applause/outrage/outbursts). In the GOP field, there is probably no more than six viable candidates (I’ll let you choose your six); the Democrats have already limited their field from six to three, so they are on course for the primaries.

The whittling of the field is useful because, if you’re drawing 1% of the vote six months to a year after you announced your candidacy, the likelihood of you earning the party’s nomination next summer is highly unlikely. It’s simply a numbers game in that you aren’t going to get the attention as someone at the back of the pack that the frontrunners are going to get from being the, well, leaders. It IS a Catch-22, but that’s the way many things are in life. Unless the front six are mysteriously overcome with a debilitating illness that renders them incapable of running for office (and Christie isn’t above trying to inflict said illness on the frontrunners), you’re going back to your previous job or hosting duties on Fox News.

Implementing these rules – and simply letting the respective committees, the RNC and the Democratic National Committee – handle the nuts and bolts of debate preparations is the logical way to go. You’re running for the most important office in the United States; being concerned that the debate hall has a temperature more than 67 degrees shouldn’t be on your mind. Policy thoughts, debate tactics and proving yourself to U. S. citizens should be your goal. As President Obama also stated earlier this week, if you aren’t able to handle the queries of journalists from the news networks, you’re going to have trouble handling Putin.

Will these rules be adopted? No way in hell…but it would make for a more streamlined debate with plenty of policy discussion. And who wouldn’t want to see The Arbiter enforce his rules on both bags of bozo biscuits running for President?

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