The Parties Should Worry about Primary Debates


Dan Scotto

Dan Scotto lives and works in New Jersey. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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26 Responses

  1. Avatar North says:

    No doubt the parties could take control of the debates more firmly, and they could salivate over their 10k viewers on public access television when said debates took place. The debates are a complicit deal between the parties and the broadcasters; the parties get to plunk their debate in from of millions of eyeballs, the media gets to plunk one of their television personalities into the same place.Report

  2. Avatar Patrick says:

    We hate when this happens as football fans, and we should feel the same way about political debates. We’re not there to watch Ed Hochuli and Gene Steratore, good referees though they are; we’re there to watch Andrew Luck and Calvin Johnson.

    I find this framing a little weird.

    I mean, yes, I watch the debates in order to see the candidates, not the moderators. However, I also watch the debates to watch the candidates debate, not enter into political theater, which is what the televised debates really have been for a while now.

    So the analogy for me is more along the lines of “Goddamn it, Calvin, I tuned in to watch you catch the football, not chase a frisbee while wearing a US flag as a cape.”

    That means addressing questions directly (they don’t), sticking to appropriately qualified verifiable facts when discussing policy implementation (they typically avoid the “appropriately qualified” part), etc.

    I didn’t find what Candy Crowley did out of line in the slightest. Mitt Romney wanted to make a rhetorical point by not only talking about what his opponent *did* say, but also removing words from his opponent’s mouth. Romney could have stayed on the path of righteousness by focusing on a *number* of things Obama said and then saying what Mitt thought those things implied… there was ample ground in there to make a claim about Obama’s weaknesses on the war on terror if that’s the claim Mitt wanted to make. Instead, Mitt gaffed and made a specific claim that was verifiable as untrue.

    That’s a screw-up, any way you look at it, and getting called out on it is one of the only ways to prevent politicians from just making any old claim up on the podium… something that they do with *far* too distressing frequency.

    A *LOT* of policy analysis is about precision. Speaking imprecisely about questions of precision does the voting public no favors, and politicians do it *all the time*.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

      @patrick “and getting called out on it is one of the only ways to prevent politicians from just making any old claim up on the podium”

      Or, alternately, to breed a candidate/constituency who simply doesn’t care that a politician gets caught telling whoppers. Which, God is my witness, I would not have thought possible except in a satirical movie or book up until this past week.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Patrick says:

      One-on-one interviews with a candidate by a good journalist would seem to be more effective at accomplishing the purposes @patrick describes than would a forum in which the candidates spar directly with one another.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I don’t know that it would be either better or more productive, but it might be.

        Here’s the dynamic I see that is healthy in a debate:

        I take this position, for this set of reasons. I articulate it.

        My opponent can take this position for a different set of reasons, or they can take a different position for a different set of reasons, or they can attack my position by challenging my reasons.

        The moderator’s job is the arbiter. It’s to make sure that the opponent sticks to the framework of responding to my argument (or articulating their own) without allowing falsity. It’s still up to the audience to judge the veracity of the argument and the relevance of the reasons.

        The reasons why this works out is that incentives are aligned pretty naturally. The opponent has an incentive to challenge me if I’m wrong, agree with me if I’m correct, or agree with me to the extent I’m correct and argue with me to the extent that I’m wrong. Swaying the audience is the goal, so we’re both provided a natural incentive to say things that are attractive to our audience, but the moderator has the incentive (as the neutral third party) to keep us from making stuff up.

        This works as long as all the roles are adequately filled. You don’t need an entirely impartial moderator (although that is the ideal)… because if you’re sticking to your role and not making stuff up, there’s a limited amount that a non-impartial moderator could do anyway without trashing their own credibility (and probably also giving you the post-event win in credibility as well).

        If it’s just me and an interviewer, that’s doable if the interviewer adequately fills the role of my challenger. Which they can do… there’s good interviewers out there. But the role of the challenger is also dependent upon the audience.

        Let’s take the George Stephanopolous question Dan talks about in the OP.

        That seems to me to be a pretty straightforward and relevant question if the audience is all of America. All of America has a right to know the answer to that question. Among Republican primary voters, though, there’s already a normative assumption that renders that question largely irrelevant, as Dan points out.

        In a general election debate, George would have been spot on to force an answer to that question. In an interview, where George is standing in proxy for all of America, George would have been spot on to force an answer to that question. In the context of a Republican primary debate, it’s largely irrelevant and probably not going to differentiate the candidates at all.

        Meaning if primary decisions were informed by interviews, we’d have a lot of those sorts of questions answered in a vacuum. In a debate format, I can answer, and my opponent can say, “I agree with what he said”, and we can move on to the next topic.

        So I’m not sure that impartial (or not) interviewers as a sole method is sufficient. The debate format can be informative, and it can be useful.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Politics works best when it involves dimly lit, no smoke these days, rooms over games of poker, drinks of whiskey, and rare steak dinners with potatoes. ;).Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The OP ends by suggesting moderator-less debates, or openly partisan moderators.

    If we are going to have debates at all, I like the idea of at least ostensibly neutral moderators. Journalists are ideal: they’re well-informed, smart, capable of thinking on their feet, and have a sense of how to tease out information from fluff. Pundits as moderators may be more colorful, but we risk them stealing even more of the spotlight than did the FOX news figures who moderated this most recent forum.

    I like the idea of an at-least-ostensibly neutral moderator asking at-least-ostensibly neutral questions precisely because I want to approach candidates directly comparing their wares to each others’ as a neutral exercise, as an effort by those candidates to persuade the persuadable moderate center of political gravity. A debate moderated by Rachel Maddow, at least when she’s being all Rachel Maddow-y, is not going to do that. A debate like that is going to shift the center of the candidates’ focus left. (Or to the right with a different pundit-moderator like, say, Jonah Goldberg.)

    Besides, if we’re talking about the Republicans here, they’re already acting like they’re competing for Max Boot’s vote.

    Of course, the candidates can always agree amongst themselves to have whatever format they want.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Naturally the moderator should be an attorney with deposition-style “soft cross” questions with back up documentation.

      I’d pay a lot to see a good attorney pin some of these idiots down in that style.Report

    • This is a very smart comment. I think there’s still something to the pundit-as-moderator idea, though. Voters want to know how a candidate would ultimately behave as president, and the debates are taken to give a preview. But politicians don’t just think by themselves, on their feet and without counsel; they discuss issues with their advisors and consult intellectuals with whom they are broadly aligned. The Presidency is a team sport, but the qualifying events are currently more like an individual medley. Given this, pundits of various stripes might be useful to have at the debates in some capacity (not necessarily as moderators), because it would help give voters an idea of the broader intellectual currents that sustain a particular aspirant’s candidacy, and thus enable better predictions about their potential presidencies.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Is there any evidence that the Democratic primary debate process is broken in the same way the Republican one is? (if indeed, the Republican process is broken, which I don’t concede.)Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

      Hard to know when there haven’t been any for 7.5 years. We’ll see. I suspect questioners will go after Clinton pretty hard (the press can generally be counted on to do that), and that seems like the main thing anyone would want out of Democratic debates this year.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The problem with the debates is that they’re far, far, far, faaaaaaaar too short.

    You’ve got 8 people up there on the stage.

    That requires at least 8 hours.

    I am not kidding. Provide seats at a table if you want, don’t make them stand for all 8 hours… but, by god, make them answer questions for 8 hours.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Jaybird says:

      They’d get tired of talking, and people would get tired of watching. And they’d all get laryngitis.

      If you want that much information – and lots of information is good! – then split the debate into three parts, each focusing on a different set of issues (e.g.: foreign policy, economic policy, social/cultural issues).Report

  7. In fact, the different in viewership between this year and 2007 is more than an order and a half of magnitude. (If you want extra cred when writing about elections, use a lot of mathematical-sounding language, even, umm, I mean especially, if it’s pointless.)Report

  8. Hate watching is nothing new:


  9. What Candy Crowley should have said to Romney about his insistence on the important of the precise phrase “act of terror” is:

    Governor Romney, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your pointless, incoherent quibble were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this country is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.


  10. why not have the moderators be someone with the best interests of the party in mind–namely, retired or senior party members or elected officials themselves?

    Because all the questions, at least to the candidates they favored, would be softballs.Report

  11. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The WaPo forcefully reminds why we need moderators, now more than ever. Left to their own devices, the candidates quickly devolve to a school-on-Saturday standard of behavior towards one another.Report

    • Donald Trump couldn’t set the intellectual conservative agenda of anything, not even the tiniest rooms, never mind a country.

      Man, what razor-sharp invective. It’s a good thing Winston Churchill isn’t around to be outdone like that.Report

  12. Avatar Stillwater says:

    My first thought is that Megyn Kelly came outa that debate smellin like roses. She asked intelligent, tightly focused, relevant, challenging questions to candidates who’ve demonstrated – via policy or rhetoric – that they need to better defend their own views on the conservative hot-topics of the day. But then I remember her getting all pissy about Santa Claus’ being white and I end up feeling like a Tom Brady championship game football.Report