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What’s wrong with the debates: A modest proposal

·Senior Editor
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Five Democratic presidential candidates are scheduled to take the debate stage in Las Vegas on Tuesday, standing at the podium, under the time-honored rules of presidential debating, alone, unaided, defending their candidacies with only their wits and smiles. Of course, it won’t be a “debate” as the word is generally understood — a clash of ideas and positions — but a competition to see how accurately they can repeat their accustomed talking points, lest some excursion into originality catch them in a “flip-flop” or, worse, a “gaffe.” This represents an excellent way to determine which of them would likely prevail in an international head-of-state spelling bee.

Not that the ability to remember where they stand — or for that matter, to stand, literally, for two hours — is irrelevant, especially in a race whose two leading candidates are, respectively, 67 years old (Hillary Clinton) and 74 (Bernie Sanders). But one can legitimately question whether the debates — the six scheduled by the Democrats, and about a dozen by the GOP, all before the main events next fall — will tell us what we most need to know about the candidates.

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(Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: AP, Andrew Harnik/AP)

Barack Obama famously turned an unscripted moment during a primary debate — offering to negotiate even with such intractable enemies as Iran, instantly and almost universally treated as a gaffe — into one of his signature policy achievements. But few politicians can match Obama’s sang-froid in the face of a media outcry. Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, blew up his national political career at a debate four years ago when he couldn’t name all three of the Cabinet departments he wanted to eliminate. Observers concluded that he wasn’t, to put it delicately, quite up to the job of being president. But is that fair? The man had a spectacular lapse of memory, but let he who has never blanked on the name of an old high-school friend at a party throw the first ginkgo biloba. If Perry as president wanted to get rid of three Cabinet departments, he wouldn’t show up on the Senate floor to deliver an impromptu talk on the subject; he’d have his staff draft a bill. He would read his speeches from a teleprompter, just as Obama, whose intellect no nonpartisan observer has doubted, does as president. If President Perry met for a summit with Vladimir Putin he would be prepared with briefing books and position papers and aides to remind him which were the Balkans and which were the Baltics.

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Then-candidate Rick Perry looks at his notes during a Republican presidential debate in 2011. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

So by that logic, why couldn’t he have written “Commerce, Education, Energy” on his shirt cuff, and peeked at it during the debate? Or brought to the podium a 3" x 5" card with a list of all the points he wanted to make? Or even carried an iPad he could use to call up facts and to communicate with aides in real time? The contestants on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” have a lifeline and no one makes fun of them for using it.

The public might not stand for it, on the grounds they’re being asked to vote for a president, not a chief of staff or director of communications. But the choice of key aides and advisers is among the most important decisions a president makes, and arguably voters could benefit from knowing who they are and what advice they are providing. George W. Bush’s campaign speeches and debate performance proved to be a notably poor guide to the policies he actually followed as president, but knowing who was advising him during the campaign might have given a better picture.

Bringing materials onstage might have benefits beyond jogging candidates’ memories. It could settle the factual disputes that crop up with depressing regularity in these events and are mostly left unresolved. The debates exist in a hermetic world of he-said, she-said, from which objective reality is almost entirely shut out, relegated to second-day fact-checking articles that only political junkies read. Did, or did not, Donald Trump ask Jeb Bush to approve casino gambling in Florida? The two candidates argued at tedious length over this point. Objective evidence exists that could help settle the question, such as newspaper articles, letters or emails, but it’s not allowed to intrude on the debate process.

In the 2012 presidential debate, it was treated as a radical breach of decorum by the Romney campaign when moderator Candy Crowley corrected the Republican candidate on whether President Obama had used the word “terror” about the Benghazi consulate attack. Whether moderators should inject facts into the debate is a tricky question; Crowley was right, but imagine the uproar if her memory had been faulty. On the other hand, I can perfectly well imagine Obama himself responding with a sound bite of his relevant remarks, researched in real time by his staff and put on the screen with Romney right there. Similarly, if Carly Fiorina insists she saw what no one else has seen in the Planned Parenthood undercover videos — by all means, let her show it to the country. Anderson Cooper, moderating tonight’s debate, says he has been studying stacks of research material and plans to hold the candidates accountable: “I believe if somebody says something that is factually incorrect, it’s a good thing to point out what the record shows,” he told the New York Times. “If somebody is saying something about their record that is not something they’ve said in the past or is different from what they’ve said in the past, then you can point that out.”

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Donald Trump and Jeb Bush during the second Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign in September. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Does this risk bogging down debates in arcane arguments and historical trivia? It probably does. Taking the long view, do the details of the Trump-Bush interaction over casino gambling really matter? Perhaps not. Even so, as an experiment, holding one debate under these rules might prove, at least, illuminating. It is by now a commonplace observation that many voters have stopped caring about facts, but perhaps that’s because they don’t encounter enough of them. Here’s one small step we can take to remedy that.

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