Presidential Debates Actually Used to Be Debates

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Nowadays, candidates get only a few seconds to parse complex issues. Can technology change the format and rescue us from sound-bite culture?

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Presidential debates were not always a string of ideological sound bites, largely devoid of policy specifics. During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, debates were several hours long, strongly substantive, and would drill down ever deeper into issues through a series of focused rebuttals.

In contrast, at last night's GOP debate in Iowa, the overwhelming majority of speeches made no reference to other candidates or contrasting opinions. On the occasion when a moderator would ask about specific disagreements, candidates were given a tiny 15-30 second window to respond, often using their leftover seconds to tout small-government values and President Obama's failed leadership.

The GOP's 19th century forerunners could not have been more different. As described by historian Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

On October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. He proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed..."

The series of engagements acted as a continuation of a larger national dialog: Lincoln and Douglas casually dropped references to previous debates, Supreme Court decisions, and intraparty quarrels. Even at an astonishing six-plus hours, the candidates apparently felt that any self-contained debate couldn't do justice to the deeply complex issues they were discussing.

By comparison, it might be misleading to call last night's Iowa event a "debate." "They wouldn't be considered debates by our standards," says Scott Wunn, Executive Director of the National Forensic League, the nonprofit that coordinates most of the nation's extracurricular high school speech and debate clubs.

Wunn, who is a former high-school English teacher in Iowa, contends that modern presidential debates resemble "extemporaneous speaking" activities, where participants opine on issues largely unopposed. Debates, he says, have requirements for "questions, and rebuttal, and interaction that doesn't take place in the typical presidential debate."

Like Lincoln-Douglas, Wunn says good debates focus on a specific question, whereas presidential debates "try to cover so many issues that they don't have the opportunity to really flesh out" ideas. Indeed, last night, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was given the seemingly impossible task of answering the following question in 90 seconds:"What specific things would you do as president to increase growth, calm the markets, [and] create jobs that could pass through a divided congress?" (A bell interrupted him before he finished).

Some candidates actually prefer to discuss specifics but are coached by professional newsmen to dumb-down responses. Fox News President Roger Ailes once scolded Rudy Giuliani for delivering a substantive, multiple-point response about education during a practice speech for an upcoming political debate. "I agree with all of those things," Giuliani recalls Ailes saying, "You get an A for education--and an F for communication." Ailes continued:

"'This isn't the United States Court of Appeals. Judges would remember those four points, and they'd write them all down. But, people at home aren't sitting there with score-card. Education--immediately, what does that say to you? Children. You have two minutes. The way you answer that question is, 'I care greatly about children. I have my own. I've always loved children and I care about them. And I realize that the future of our city is built around children. So the core of my concern about education will be to make the educational system exactly like that, built around the children.'"

Veteran campaigners had learned the power of appearance after the 1960 presidential debates, when the handsome John F. Kennedy wielded his charisma to match the intellectual wit of Nixon. While a poll of radio listeners found that Nixon had beaten Kennedy 49 percent to 21 percent, Kennedy's sharp looks evened the score on television, with 30 percent of watchers crowning him the victor, over 29 percent for Nixon. The relatively unscientific outcome of the poll was experimentally verified in 2003 by University of Minnesota Professor James Druckman, who randomly assigned college students to either listen or watch the now obscure 1960's debate. As expected, his TV-watching participants re-crowned Kennedy the winner.

As the Internet steadily erodes the dominance of television, technology could either inject some 19th century sophistication into presidential debates or completely sap it of substance. Last month, GOP contenders participated in the world's first "Twitter debate," where all 140-character-or-less responses were submitted through the candidates' official Twitter accounts.

During the social media battle, @RickSantorum crammed an otherwise lengthy rant against the federal government into an eloquent 22-character cry, "the federal govt kills jobs!"

Rep. Michelle Bachmann's (R-Minn.) tweet on healthcare was no more informative: "Repeal Obamacare. It's estimated to cost 800,000 jobs, is a small biz killer, and unconstitutional."

Technology, however, also has the potential to re-energize in-depth debates, as the Web has been a boon to lengthy political speeches. Then-Sen. Obama's hour-long talk at Google's headquarters has snagged over 720,00 of views on YouTube, and dozens of other full-length speeches have garnered similarly impressive viewer counts.

Now that YouTube, Facebook, and Hulu are broadcasting original content, they could easily pair up presidential contenders in one-on-one, hour-long debates on specific issues. The Web has an appetite for both tweets and orations, and the future of presidential debates may depend on which attention span has the most influence.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Greg Ferenstein writes about public policy for TechCrunch.

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