It’s Debatable: Top Tips for When Candidates Collide
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 20:12
BRUCE THE BLOG
BY BRUCE APAR
MAYOR, PENNYSAVER COMMUNITY
Our Presidential candidates have inspired me with their debate tonight, and at this writing, it hasn’t even started! The inspiration comes from something the opponents seem to agree on: that whining about being held feet to the fire by a debate moderator is a good tactic, if you’re fearful of facing tough questions and follow-up questions and being held accountable.
Heck, they’re only running to become leader of the free world, so why not dodge and equivocate? Didn’t our forefathers use those words somewhere in the Constitution? Even if they didn’t, rest assured some joker will claim that it’s a Constitutional right to bellyache about the debate moderator wanting to press the candidates on issues of national importance.
So, in true American spirit, here are some thoughts on how debates should be run, based on my running a few over the years, admittedly far, far from D.C. politics, but being far from the madding crowd isn’t always such a bad thing, now, is it?
Speaking from my moonlighting perch as a debate moderator, here are some thoughts candidates, audience questioners, debate organizers, and even other moderators, might want to keep in mind as the debate season throttles into full gear the next three weeks.
If candidates are invited to participate in a town hall-type format of statements and audience questions – but lacking a moderator or timekeeper — it’s a “Candidates Forum,” not a debate. If it has a moderator and timekeeper (with time limits on statements and candidate answers), with opportunity for a candidate to respond to an opponent’s remarks, it is a debate.
When a forum is labeled a debate, and a debate a forum, rather than serving the electorate, it serves to confuse. Truth is, there are fewer old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone debates these days, especially since the separate time segment for rebuttals (after each candidate has responded to a question) has largely been removed from the format. Now, candidates are advised they can rebut within their single response to a question, but that isn’t the same; it’s rather lame.
If a candidate in a given race cannot appear, opponent(s) of that candidate who do appear should be allowed to read a statement and to take questions from the audience. Candidates who do appear should not be penalized by an opponent whose reason for dis-appearing could be entirely legitimate, or could be a calculated move. There’s no way to prove which it is, so when in doubt, the benefit of the doubt goes to the candidate who does appear.
There are stalwart, professional debate organizers – primarily The League of Women Voters, standard-bearer of local debates – that have strict rules that may disagree with my position on dis-appearing candidates. I’m happy to debate this point.
The chronic bugaboo for debate organizers is whether to allow audience members to ask questions live at a microphone or to require questions be submitted in writing prior to the debate, to be read by the moderator. There are merits to each method, and there is the specter of madness in the live-question method, varying with audience makeup.
A moderator is predictable and consistent, or should be. Audience members stepping up to the mike can be volatile and lots of other words. At a recent debate, I was obliged to politely but firmly read the riot act when questions veered off the rails toward self-serving pronouncements by political operatives with a very specific agenda and candidate to support. Such questions often are rhetorical (that is, a political statement thinly disguised as a valid question), and they also can be hostile and inappropriately personal. Political statements by plants for a candidate in the debate are not valid questions, period.
Most debate organizers and many moderators prefer to avoid live questions for their unpredictability and potential to spin a debate out of control. I prefer live questions because they add a spontaneous dynamic to the “theater” of vigorous debate. Live questions better engage the audience, and keep candidates on their toes more daringly. Live questions also allow a moderator to directly engage with audience members. Done well among candidates, audience and moderator alike, a good debate is performance art, a form of reality agitprop.
Related to the above, the question arises as to what is the best, fairest, most honest kind of audience question? Glad you asked! The answer is that it is not one of the following: a question that sets a “gotcha!” trap; a question so specific to one candidate, it cannot be properly addressed by another candidate; a loaded question or planted question that is posed only to allow the candidate you support to score a cheap point.
These are the type of questions typically – and disingenuously – put to a candidate by so-called political operatives in the employ of a political party or one of the candidates on the dais. The sharpest candidates, such as one in a recent debate I moderated, will spot the “plant,” and call the questioner out by politely asking the person to acknowledge the professional partisanship – or doing it for them — which the “ringer” should do voluntarily before posing the question. I always ask audience questioners to first state their full name. Pseudonyms don’t wash because invariably there are any number of other people in the audience who know the person at the mike.
Another fine point about questions that separates a real give-and-take debate from a soft-sell candidates forum is that, with the real deal, candidates absolutely must know what questions will be asked. Studious candidates with a crackerjack campaign team will anticipate the specific topics that will arise. Of course, you’ll get paranoid candidates insisting the moderator slipped questions to another candidate before the debate – as I was accused of doing in one instance.
That is a ploy on par with a baseball manager haranguing an umpire to influence subsequent calls. Except in the case of a debate moderator, there’s no subjective judgment calls to influence one way or another. Everybody gets the same questions and the same time limits. Far from a team manager, a moderator has as much influence on the debate’s outcome as a stadium gatekeeper does on a game’s outcome.
One of my sourest experiences was when a certain Chamber of Commerce CEO agreed to let each candidate’s seconds before the debate pick a couple of questions each to throw out after they were submitted by the public. This is debate politics of the toadiest kind.
A familiar faux pas I’ve seen over the years of moderating and sponsoring debates is a candidate’s team “inviting” an opponent to debate. It’s a rookie mistake committed by over-anxious and inexperienced first-time candidates whose advisors haven’t done their homework. For obvious reasons, it’s rarely if ever done by a confident incumbent, who has little to gain from inviting debate with a lesser-known challenger.
It’s the essence of poor form for a candidate to play the role of debate organizer, since as soon as a candidate does that, it sends a red flag to the opponent that the inviting candidate is trying to wield an upper hand. Candidates must be organized and hosted by a third-party with absolutely no direct involvement in the campaigns of any candidates in the debate. To its credit, the League of Women Voters in its guidelines stipulates that a debate moderator should not reside within the district represented by the offices up for election.
While we’re faux pas-sing along matters of debate, switching to my journalistic hat, here’s one surefire way for a candidate’s team to insult an editor or reporter: Send a press release the morning after a debate declaring that your candidate “won” the debate, not based on any post-debate polling or any other third-party opinion.
While such gamesmanship may feel politically correct to those whose job it is to win an election, from the recipient’s end, it appears politically inept, as if proclaiming to the journalist, “You’ll believe anything we say, won’t you?”
The results of a coin toss (if only two candidates) or drawing lots (if more than two) to determine the order in which candidates will make opening statements are indisputable. What’s not, though, is how that affects the order of closing statements. The reflexive protocol is that whomever makes the first opening statement makes the last closing statement. However, that gives the same candidate both the first and last words of the debate. My preference is that the order of the opening statements is retained for the closing statements, so that the candidate who was last to make opening statement has the last word with the closing statement. When explained this way, most sensible candidates in a debate will agree this is the fairest way to go.