It’s Time to Change Up the Debate Rules


Question for those of you who watched last night’s debate: what did you think of the questions the moderators asked?

It was an odd display. The wording of the questions often veered close to outright rudeness. For example:

  • Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?
  • You’re skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or least finish what you start?
  • In terms of all of that, it raises the question whether you have the maturity and wisdom to lead this $17 trillion economy.

At the same time, if you take a look an inch below the surface, most of the questions the CNBC crew asked were actually very substantive. The candidates generally didn’t feel like engaging with anything other than their plans to cut taxes and slash regulations, but that’s not the fault of the moderators. That’s because it’s a Republican debate, and these are pretty much the only economic issues Republican candidates like to talk about.

This year’s debates have all followed a similar pattern, with the moderators asking each candidate at least one “tough” question near the beginning of the show. Fox did it too, and Anderson Cooper did it to the Democrats, so it’s not a liberal media conspiracy. Mostly it seems to be some kind of alpha chimp display to demonstrate that the moderators are real live journalists, not just pretty faces letting the candidates make stump speeches.

I didn’t really mind this the first time or two, but I’m starting to find it annoying. Fine: you folks are real journalists. Now let’s move on and ask questions that are really tough. Dig a little more deeply into policy and then follow up. Maybe switch up the rules and get rid of the “anyone who’s named gets 30 seconds to respond” nitwittery. Give the moderators a couple of minutes for each question, and make it a real back-and-forth. Less mud wrestling and more policy depth.

It probably wouldn’t work. I’m not sure there’s any power on earth that can get the candidates off their rehearsed talking points. But it might be worth a try.

POSTSCRIPT: And on the candidate side, how about giving the attacks on the media a rest? I know it’s a great applause line, but honestly, who cares? It’s just pandering. Find something new to get applause for.

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