Substance is the goal in presidential debates, but form sometimes gets in the way. This year, major format changes make the success of the debates as hard to predict as the election itself.
Beginning with the Oct. 3 debate on domestic issues, viewers will find something old — PBS veteran Jim Lehrer, 78, moderating his 12th such event since 1988; plus, something new — a format that Lehrer helped design, resembling a television talk program. The Commission on Presidential Debates believes that the interview-like approach, which will also be used when foreign affairs are discussed Oct. 22 — along with a revised “town hall” approach Oct. 16 — will provide increased insight into the candidates and their positions. That seems, at best, debatable.
Back in 2008, Mr. Lehrer said the Obama-McCain debate would be his last. But just like politicians who are reluctant to abandon pet projects, he agreed to return this year to pursue his dream of an event in which the candidates ask each other questions and wrangle, like guests on Sunday TV talk shows. When the approach was introduced in a limited way four years ago, both candidates were reluctant to engage. Frustrated, Mr. Lehrer announced, “I’m just determined to get you to talk to each other. At least, I’m going to try.”
This year, he helped persuade the Commission to reduce the number of questions from nine to six, allowing for 15 minutes of discussion on each. The Commission prefers a stage set-up in which the candidates and moderator are seated at a table, talk show style, but as happened in 2008, a last minute request from the Obama campaign may again result in one debate at traditional podiums.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer, 75, is also returning. In ’08, he got off to a strained start with the discussion format when he asked Sen. McCain, “Would you like to ask (Sen. Obama) a question?” McCain said, “No,” and went on to deliver one of his talking points.
So, with much riding on this year’s debates, are the new formats really the best way to go? Are there no qualified moderators other than the two who keep postponing retirement to serve? And isn’t the so-called town hall approach inherently weak because it relinquishes the questioning to undecided voters who may be least qualified for the task?
Most of the CPD’s decisions are rooted in voter research conducted 20 years ago, when it was determined that the public prefers a single moderator and more room for follow-up. Voters also like the town hall approach, which was first tried in 1992 and gradually modified in hopes of avoiding occurrences like in 2004 when the first question of the night from an undecided voter, directed to Sen. John Kerry, was: why do my friends think you’re “wishy-washy?”
Founded in 1987 after the League of Women Voters gave up trying to get the major parties to agree on debate details, the CPD must now deal with shifts in journalism and social media. In selecting the two main moderators, it appears the commission sought television vets who were least likely to care about modern, interpretive journalism — effectively eliminating anyone employed by Fox News Channel or MSNBC, as well as anyone working in print or online.
I asked the commission’s co-chair, Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., a former head of the Republican National Committee, about criteria used to select moderators. “With the new format, we really need two pros,” he said. “We need people with great experience in politics but who don’t have an ego problem and feel they have to make points for themselves.”
Mr. Fahrenkopf said his group “looked hard to find an Hispanic,” without success, and was surprised that there “were not a lot of (qualified) women.” Candy Crowley of CNN was picked to moderate the town hall event.
The town hall approach may appeal to voters conceptually, but placing responsibility in the hands of those who have so far failed to make up their minds is a bit like asking struggling students to write the class curriculum. This year the commission is taking an even riskier approach by cutting the number of question-asking undecideds, picked by the Gallup Organization, to just 20 people, who will sit in what Mr. Fahrenkopf describes as “easy chairs.”
As to the discussion format in the two main debates, he says “podiums feel like walls; the tenor changes when people sit at tables.” Others might argue that while tables work on Sunday TV, such a set-up is not necessarily what Presidential debates are about. Late Thursday, the Obama campaign successfully lobbied for podiums in the first debate.
Just before the telecast of the first Obama-McCain debate in ’08, Jim Lehrer told those in the hall, “I’m going to take a deep breath and hold it for 90 minutes.”
This year, until the new formats are proved worthy, the best advice for any voter expecting an epiphany might be, don’t hold your breath.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
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