OPED: Forget debates, if we want real answers

Tribune News Service
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush take the stage before the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Everyone seems to agree that Thursday's Republican presidential debate was slashing and angry; the candidates barely said anything of substance. If we are going to avoid the same sort of nonsense when the actual Democratic and Republican nominees duel in the fall, we will need to make major changes in the format. I would rather eliminate the presidential debates entirely, given that they are neither debates nor presidential. Given that abolition isn't an option, however, I have a radical suggestion for improving their quality: Give the candidates the questions in advance.


Give both sides the questions some 48 hours before the debate, and do not allow follow-up questions except by the consent of the candidate. In addition, I would award each candidate a total of, say, 45 minutes for all answers, and let him or her decide how much time to spend on each.

You're wondering how so counter-intuitive a proposition could possibly be a good idea. Let me offer three reasons.

— We would present a more realistic setting. The current debates imagine that what truly matters in a leader is the first answer to an unexpected question. In reality, even in an emergency, presidents don't craft responses on the spot. In determining their positions, they consult their staff and even outside experts. By allowing candidates to do the same during the debate, we would discover the quality of the people around them — the aides who make or break a presidency. We would see the candidate as a polished product, the same product we will see in office.

— We would reduce the incentive to be glib. It is notorious that the debate format now rewards the candidate who is smooth rather than the candidate who is right. There is no reason to think that the ability to reduce a complex issue to a quick answer is correlated with the ability to govern. The ideal occupant of the Oval Office should be thoughtful and reflective, resisting entirely the tendency to shoot from the hip.

An enormous disadvantage of the way we run debates is the lack of time for persuasion. Candidates can state a position, but cannot offer a serious justification for it, because the time they possess to answer is counted down in seconds.

— We would gain a sense of the candidate's priorities. You will recall that I suggested giving a candidate a total time for all questions — say, 45 minutes — rather than a set time for each question. Each candidate would decide which answer needs only one minute and which needs five, or 10, or even more. As we watch the candidates choose where to spend their time, we will learn about what issues each considers most important — or, at minimum, what issues the candidate thinks deserve a long answer rather than a short one.

In this model time is expensive: There is a limited amount, but the candidates rather than the rules determine how to invest it. How the candidates allocates time might conceivably tell us more about them than the content of their answers. Given the likelihood that different candidates will choose to spend different amounts of time on different questions, we will be able to compare their decisions.

In summary, then, the counterintuitive idea of giving the candidates the questions in advance and allowing them to decide how to allocate their time among the answers would have three salutary effects: presenting the candidates in a setting that more closely resembles the job they hope to fill, reducing the incentive for glibness and applause lines, and enabling us to compare the candidates' priorities by studying how they allocate their time.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at scarter01@bloomberg.net.