What's wrong with the debates, and how to fix them

Education, the Supreme Court, gay marriage: Moderators keep avoiding issues, but debates can be fixed. Here's how

By Alex Pareene

Published October 15, 2012 11:45AM (EDT)

Why have the presidential debates been so incredibly narrowly focused? With two debates having already taken place, Americans who look to debates to learn what candidates stand for haven't heard a single thing about most of America's most divisive and pressing political issues. The Atlantic's David Graham made one list of topics thus far ignored by candidates and moderators: Gay marriage and gay rights, abortion and women's health, voting rights, climate change, the Federal Reserve, housing, jobs, and the euro crisis. And Graham left out civil liberties, immigration, the Supreme Court, drug policy, and education. To say nothing of net neutrality and Internet regulation, copyright and IP, student and consumer debt, transportation and transit, food and agriculture, and, I dunno, filibuster reform.

Instead, over two weeks four men argued about tax policy. The moderators have not, thus far, introduced a single slightly unconventional issue, and they have ignored several very conventional ones.

It can't be overstated how awful Jim Lehrer's questions were. His "best" question, on plans to create jobs, led, with no complaint from him, to a lengthy discussion of tax reform, a tangential (mostly unrelated) issue. He had the "domestic policy" debate and we heard only about fiscal issues and healthcare.

Martha Raddatz, at the vice-presidential debate, seemed substantially better, because she policed the discussion better and challenged the candidates, but her choice of questions was no better. The vice-presidential debate combines domestic and foreign policy, and on both subjects she stuck to the pet topics of the Beltway press. In the case of foreign policy, that meant only the Middle East, and nothing on the rest of the world, and almost strictly questions related to war and not diplomacy. On domestic issues we got, again, taxes, plus the requisite "civility" question, and a question on entitlements that began with an actual complete untruth from Raddatz.

David Roberts:

Then it was straight to “entitlements,” which, in case you weren’t aware of the Beltway CW, Raddatz introduced by saying, “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.” That is just absolutely, empirically false. Medicare is fine out to 2024 and easily fixable after that (it’s medical costs, not Medicare, that are the real problem). And Social Security quite literally cannot go broke. It too can be kept solvent for many decades with small tweaks. Neither is a problem until a decade from now.

Of all the requirements for a debate moderator, surely the very minimum is that he or she not introduce factual errors into the discussion. No?

At least, at the vice-presidential debate, we got one question on reproductive rights. And as Irin Carmon pointed out, the question was framed in the most obnoxious way possible: She asked the two practicing Catholic men how their religion informs their position on allowing women autonomy over their own bodies.

The debates usually cover a narrow range of topics,but I can't remember them ever being quite this bad. At the 2008 "domestic" debate, moderator Bob Schieffer did ask about energy policy, and the words "climate change" came up. Schieffer also asked about the Supreme Court. The 2008 "town hall" debate was -- quite understandably -- focused primarily on the great financial crisis and the government's response, but there was a climate change question, at least.

How did this happen, exactly? As always, I blame the press.

Cultural and minority issues are seen by the mainstream political press as "frivolous" at a time when we have "real problems," like the debt and foreign crises. Issues that "only" women or ethnic minorities "care about" aren't as "serious" as Manly Topics like the Federal Deficit. The moderators are the most elite of the elite Washington political press, and when the elite Washington political press deigns to care about policy, more often than not fiscal issues and the debt are the policies they pick.

"Social issues" are for "special interests" and voters that don't belong to the platonic ideal of the swing voter: white, middle-class, suburban, undecided. If you care about immigration -- in any capacity -- you are likely an unimportant "partisan," a member of your party's "base" and possibly even part of the "fringe." (It also should go without saying that these moderators understand unemployment as a theoretical problem, not a real threat, and so their questions on the subject can happily be ignored in favor of discussions of adjustments to the top marginal tax rate.)

What Atrios points out here also has something to do with it, I think: As various "social issues" (gay stuff, mostly!) went from "wedge issues," to be used against Democrats, to (slight) winners for Democrats, they became less interesting to the Beltway press, even if they remain critical to millions of Americans.

And don't forget that the act of asking a question on a topic usually suggests that the questioner has some sort of position on the topic. It's "safe" for nonpartisan representatives of the "objective" press to ask about the deficit and the urgent need to reform Social Security, because the urgent need to reform Social Security isn't considered a partisan position in D.C., it's just considered an objective fact. But to ask about the right of gay people to serve in the military is to invite the criticism that you care suspiciously much about them. To ask about civil liberties or the drug war is basically to suddenly admit that you are Ron Paul in disguise.

(Even "climate change" questions are usually only ever questions about domestic oil drilling, because most reporters do not want to sound too much like they believe in man-made global warming.)

Will it get better? Will we hear Barack Obama and Mitt Romney bring up undocumented immigrants or LGBT adoption once in either of their next two meetings? It's possible. Tomorrow is the "town hall" debate, in which regular citizens ask the candidates questions. Here's how the town hall debate works: Only "uncommitted voters" are invited (which means the vast majority of voters who've actually made up their minds are excluded from the opportunity to question either of the candidates) and the moderator (in this case Candy Crowley) decides which of them get to ask questions. So we still get only what the moderators think is important.

And following the town hall is the foreign policy (or "national security") debate, where we just might get some questions (if not any good answers) on extrajudicial assassinations and other creative "anti-terror" methods, but, obviously, nothing the myriad "domestic" issues thus far addressed.

How do we fix it?

New moderators.

In the last four presidential election cycles, going back to 2000, nearly every presidential debate moderator has been an old white man. The sole exception has been Candy Crowley, who'll do it tomorrow. (The vice-presidential debates are traditionally where they let women and minorities do the job.) Jim Lehrer is basically the Billy Crystal of these things. It's ridiculous that no one under 60 is allowed to question the candidates at the point at which the majority of Americans begin paying attention to the race, and the blinding whiteness of the moderators leads to the feeling that topics "other" Americans care about aren't "important" enough to bring up.

Partisan moderators.

Younger moderators would be a good start, but we don't just need younger versions of the old wise men -- sorry, Brian Williams -- we need people who might ask interesting questions.

We ought to have partisan moderators do at least one debate. We don't need Olbermann and O'Reilly (though I'd watch that!), but maybe Josh Marshall and Rich Lowry. Partisans actually -- usually! -- care deeply about the issues, and it's clear that Jim Lehrer doesn't. We'd get a wider variety of topics and much more interesting questions if we allowed people with actual beliefs in.

Third parties!

Those Ross Perot debates were a blast, right? Let's just let one, or maybe two, third-party candidates in just to raise the possibility that unexpected or uncomfortable issues might come up.

After we fix the debates we can get to work on the Electoral College.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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2012 Elections Jim Lehrer Media Media Criticism Politics Presidential Debates