TV debates don't work — bring back the League of Women Voters

Rescue debates from the entertainment industry

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CBS News hosted its first debate of the campaign season this week, and the reviews for the disjointed evening were not good. "This was the worst political debate I ever saw, and the reason for that was the moderators," complained Charles Pierce at Esquire. "None of them had the faintest idea what their jobs were or how to do them." He added, "I’ve seen better organized soccer riots."

The New York Times agreed: "In a rush for attention at the Democrats’ noisy showdown, CBS’s moderators got stampeded."

There's nothing wrong with a raucous public debate if it's enlightening and if it's helping Democratic voters this winter pick and choose their preferred candidate. I have no patience for members of the Etiquette Police in the press who try to shush people in the name of seriousness. But the South Carolina debate wasn't enlightening. It was a complete mess, and therefore often unproductive and non educational.

"At one point, well into the second hour, front-runner Bernie Sanders and indefatigable challenger Pete Buttigieg indulged in a nonstop yelling match," noted the Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan. "Not a word was intelligible for what felt like five interminable minutes, though it probably was more like 30 seconds." A lot of the debates this campaign year have been a wreck. And yes, it's the media's fault.

It's the fault of moderators who fail to control the events, and moderators who commonly get bogged down in process and polling questions. (Basically, 'Why don't more people like you?')

Somewhat tongue in cheek I keep campaigning for the return of the League of Women Voters, urging that we should let that un-glitzy civics group produce the debates in its signature low-key, serious style that defined televised debates in the 1980s. I realize that's never going to happen. And I also realize me saying bring back the League of Women Voters is like saying, 'I wish Up with People still did the Super Bowl halftime show.’ But sometimes old, boring stuff works better?

The truth is, it's easy for writers to point at television news and say, 'They're doing everything wrong.' And no one should be under the illusion that debates are simple to produce, especially sprawling ones from earlier in the season that featured more than a dozen people on the stage.

But even the two-person presidential debates for the general election as currently structured are complete failures, simply because the rules that are established, with way too much input and control from the political parties, are essentially designed to make sure there's not much natural give-and-take for long blocks of time. They're designed to make sure things don't get too unscripted, for fear that the party's candidate might mess up.

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In fact, the League of Women Voter's bowed out of the presidential debates precisely for that reason:

By 1988, however, the League decided it would pull out of sponsoring the presidential debates, saying the campaigns had negotiated "behind closed doors" in a way that had given them too much control over the debate proceedings, questioners and audience. The League released a strongly worded statement at the time that read:

"It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

Clearly the debates today, both in the primaries and in the general election, don't resemble actual debates in the classic, academic sense. They more resemble joint appearances where discussions are limited to a ridiculous degree — 'Explain your universal health care plan in 45 seconds!' 'Now everybody abruptly pivot topics!'  

They're also obviously big business. The Democratic debate on the eve of the Nevada caucus drew a record audience of 20 million viewers, plus ten million more who watched the event via streaming. During the 2016 campaign, when CNBC hosted a debate for Republican candidates, the channel charged 50 times its normal ad rate, because the audience was so large. Idea: Eliminate the commercials all together and air the debates on proudly non-partisan C-SPAN.

Over years, the debates have been turned into something they don't need to be. We don't need spaceship-sized stages that sometimes look like something out of a Marvel movie. We don't need the walkout music and the taped introductions that feel more like a pre-game fodder for an NFL game.

In the name of reclaiming the debates let’s get rid of the audience. Get rid of the $1,700 tickets. Get rid of the rooting sections. Scrap all of it. Basically, rescue the debates from the entertainment industry, which is where they currently reside.

Oh and by the way, Trump probably won't show up for the debates in the fall, so I wouldn't waste a lot of time planning those.

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FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK

Morgan Wallen, "This Bar"

"I found myself in this bar

Making mistakes and making new friends

I was growing up and nothing made sense

Buzzing all night like a neon in the dark

I found myself in this bar"

Hopefully everyone has a favorite bar they "find themselves" in. Over the years, mine have included Sheehan's in Northampon, Mass., 2A and The Ear Inn in NYC, Tierney’s in Montclair, NJ, and Ocean Mist, South Kingstown, RI.