The worst thing about political debates occurs when the candidates break into their canned speeches, often repeating ones they had done before, and often when they have very little to do with the question that was asked. This happens because the candidates’ teams, in negotiating debate rules, want it to happen. They want a boring debate, because they know that while it’s hard (but not impossible) to win an election with a great debate performance, it is certainly easy to lose one with a bad one. So they avoid risks.
We won’t stop that, but some of the questions asked by Gwen Ifill, Jim Lehrer and those selected by Brokaw could have been much better. Better, in that they could have pushed the debate towards real answers and away from canned ones, just a little. With so many questions, it is obvious before the question is finished either what the candidate will say, or what they won’t say. There are questions you just know no candidate will answer. Some questions are better than others.
So I want the moderators to workshop the questions in advance, with a small, dedicated team of political reporters who have followed the campaigns. Each proposed question should be tried out before the reporters, who will then think of how the candidate is likely to dodge the question, or what canned speech they will give.
Eventually you get a set of questions where the reporters, who have seen the candidate speak for weeks, don’t know the answers in advance, or think the candidate might give a real answer to. Care must be taken not to bias the questions. But they should be real reporter’s questions. As I said, a good candidate can dodge anything, but you can make it more obvious when they dodge, and give them better chances not to dodge. And certainly not give them question that make you shout “there’s no way they would answer that one.”
Next, in my dreamworld, I would like to see some sort of punishment for dodging. In this case, I would give a balanced audience voting meters where they indicate “Did the candidate actually try to answer the question?” And up on the board, like a baseball score, would go a series of Y and Ns, or 1s and 0s, for each question. The candidate will “win” this score if the crowd felt they actually tried to answer the question. Obviously there is a risk that the judges would bias towards the candidate they like. Reporters, who are used to asking questions and know when they have gotten a dodge would be the best judges. I guess if I can dream, I can dream that, because the candidates would never agree to that. One of them would always fear it was going to be against their interests.
Which is why the question rehearsal is possible, since that’s something the candidates can’t control in setting out the rules. Most other good ideas their teams can stomp out.