What a Real Debate Looks Like

** FILE ** In this Sept. 23, 1976 file photo, President Gerald Ford speaks as Jimmy Carter listens during the first of three debates, at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater. (AP Photo, File)
President Gerald Ford speaks as Jimmy Carter listens during the first of three debates in 1976

In this election cycle there is a common misperception that it is the moderator’s job to comment on a debater’s lies or false claims.  But that’s the job of the other debater. In a true debate the participants aren’t responding to reporters, but fact-checking each other.  

The political season always brings out a cycle of “debates” finally agreed to by cautious candidates, news organizations, and the Commission on Presidential Debates. Though everyone involved has different motives, the one most commonly expressed is that debates offer the public the chance to compare candidates side by side. In the unfettered give-and-take of a debate we are supposed to learn about issues that divide and sometimes unify those running for the same office.

In their current form, however, debates are fettered; they can’t achieve the lofty goals we have for the form.  The usual “debate” format devised by campaigns and participating media amounts to little more than a joint press conference.

A debate done correctly should deliver a purposeful clash of views, where claims and evidence are tested against a series of counter-arguments.  Among others, Aristotle was certain that acts of public advocacy had a cleansing effect on the body politic. He believed we are wiser for subjecting our ideas to the scrutiny of others. This may sound lofty and abstract, but most of us do a form of this when we talk through an important decision. We often want friends to help us see potential problems to our proposed course of action.

The problem is that candidates usually fear unmediated and extended exchanges. They and their staffs believe that a serious gaff can sink an entire campaign. So they hedge their bets. They agree to “debates” if they are moderated by a panel, or at least a single journalist. This is when the process begins to go south. It’s further doomed when each side is given only a minute or two to respond to statements from the other side.

There is also a widespread perception that it is the moderator’s job to comment on lies, half truths or false claims.  But that’s the job of the other debater. In a good debate the participants aren’t answering reporter’s questions, but fact-checking each other. The advocates directly address the claims and arguments of their opposites on what are usually several broad but important subject areas.  When one issue seems to have been exhausted, a moderator may steer the pair to a related issue, and then get out of the way.

Perhaps one the purest political debate available on video dates back to 1992.  Talk show host Phil Donahue invited Democratic Party primary contenders Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown to debate on his show.  After a brief introduction and commercial Donahue simply introduced the two men and moved out of the way.  The debate at a single round table was direct and mostly uninterrupted.


Lincoln and Douglas debated for hours by themselves without the assistance of others. Indeed, a prime form of Saturday night entertainment in the 19th Century was a formal debate in a town’s biggest venue. The whole process of seeing two leaders explain their ideas under the scrutiny of an interested audience could be invigorating. By contrast, the short question-based formats commonly in American political debates generally ruin the chance to see how much a candidate actually knows beyond their memorized campaign sound bites.

Our system conspires to protect candidates and allowing them to stay in a comfort zone of clichés and bumper sticker retorts.  Debates should expose relevant facts and hard truths that are initially hidden by glib statements of resolve.  We rarely let the candidates follow a single thread long enough to see if they really understand those truths.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu