Having just watched the Vice-Presidential Debate this evening, my thoughts naturally turn to the merits and flaws of the debate structure presently favored in America. I should say that tonight's debate was unusually good in that it largely turned on real policy differences, and every time Edwards tried to bring up Haliburton, Cheney's voting record from decades ago, and other irrelevancies, he was properly smacked down for it. But the debate still suffered from the usual systemic flaws.
Back in the Good Old Days™ (say, Lincoln-Douglas), debates lasted several hours. The cadidates had the time to lay out comprehensive, structured arguments on their policies and those of their opponents. Statements would often be longer than two hours, as would be the rebuttals. This was all to the good, as we are in theory electing officials to construct policy.
Tonight, the longest either candidate was allowed to speak was two minutes. (Though there were a few blatant violations which the moderator did not interrupt.) Rebuttals were ninety seconds, then thirty seconds. Questions were not known in advance, requiring answers to be entirely off-the-cuff, or else stock answers that had little relevance to the question.
Now I have a little exercise for the reader. Take a stopwatch, set it to two minutes, and within that time do an oral presentation to a friend on why we [should/should not] be in Iraq. You may repeat this exercise for any major policy issue such as Social Security reform, taxes or the lack of same, or why every citizen should own an M1-A Abrams tank. You will quickly find that two minutes is insufficient for presenting anything more than key phrases, broad generalizations, and the bare outlines of any complex topic.
The conventional logic is that the modern debate is intended not to be about policy, but about the candidates. The viewers can see how the candidates react to unscripted situations, and develop a "feel" for who the candidate really is. This logic is partly undermined by artificial debate formats, for example in the first presidential debate where the candidates could not rebut each other. But let us take the argument at face-value.
What skills are being tested by the present format?
1. Proper speaking method and style.
2. Memorization of talking points and key phrases.
3. Rapidly formulating new arguments in response to the question or the opponent's statement.
4. Mastery of the cutting remark.
5. Quick thinking, wit, and self-control.
While these can be valuable to an elected official, it is less important to think quickly than it is to think deeply. Truly deep thinkers pause when they are thinking. They need to examine the subject carefully before formulating a response to it. Deep thought is penalized by the two-minute format in favor of glib speech (which will not always be backed up by coherent thought). More than that, the skills listed above are largely superficial, having little bearing on questions of policy. Modern debates are testing the wrong skills; they should be testing the ability to explain and defend an agenda.
The simplest thing to do would be to allow more time for statements, so that real policy matters can be discussed. Ten minutes per segment would be nice; most college courses on speechmaking, including the one I took, require the student to give a detailed presentation with citations in ten minutes. This simple rule change would get us away from the usual fluff and back on the solid ground of the things that really matter.
For that reason, I think the two-minute segment isn't going away soon. Both parties are pursuing miserable policies and try desperately to divert the attention of the electorate from the long-term trend. Neither side wants to face unpleasant truths such as the looming implosion of Medicare and Social Security, or the failure of the War on Drugs, or the ease with which enemies could circumvent security at the U.S. border or elsewhere. "Policy bad, sound-bite good" seems to be the order of the day.