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Get serious: Making debates less of a spectacle

Posted: October 4, 2011 - 12:03am

The staging and format of the GOP debates thus far is robbing viewers of substantive dialogue and will pose a long-term problem for the Republican Party. I have a prescription.

First, 60 seconds is not enough time to address the serious problems we face, and 30 seconds is insufficient to offer a rebuttal to another candidate’s plan. Moreover, when complex issues are reduced to sound bites in front of a live audience, there is a natural tendency to solicit the crowd’s instantaneous response. Trouble is, when the audience reacts inappropriately, an impression is formed of both the candidates and their supporters that may turn off voters needed to win a general election.

In this month’s debate at the Reagan Library, the mention by moderator Brian Williams of the number of individuals executed on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s watch received thunderous applause even before Perry started his response to the question.

Five days later, at a debate in Tampa, Fla., CNN’s Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical question to Texas Rep. Ron Paul about a man who shows up in an emergency room with a catastrophic injury and no health insurance. Audience members shouted that the patient should be left to die. And last week in Orlando, some in the audience booed a soldier who asked the candidates, via video, for their positions on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The debates have been good spectacle, but not all that valuable. The cheapening of the process makes it difficult for candidates who wish to offer substance to emerge on a crowded stage. This week I asked former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman what it feels like to participate when the subject matter strays.

“Here is the deal that becomes very frustrating,” Huntsman said. “You spend 15 minutes on vaccinations. You spend 15 minutes on what your book said and how you spin it . . . and I’m looking out at that camera thinking that 15 million folks are unemployed, millions and millions beyond who are so dispirited they have just given up trying. This nation has an economy that is sucking wind and we’re wasting time on vaccines? It’s all drama.”

At Politico.com, veteran pundit Jeff Greenfield offered a list of proposals to improve debates:

Lose the live audiences and hold the debates in a TV studio.

Rely on journalists for the questions, not the public.

Do away with the videotaped candidate introductions and scene-setting taped packages that are better suited to “Monday Night Football” than a presidential debate.

In a conversation with me, Greenfield noted that there “wasn’t a debate in the presidency — ever — until a radio debate in 1948 between Tom Dewey and Harold Stassen. And there wasn’t a television debate until (Hubert) Humphrey and (John) Kennedy faced off in West Virginia. After 1960, we went three cycles without debates and now they’re institutionalized, and on the whole, I think that is a good thing.”

I like his proposal, but with a twist.

If the goal is to improve the level of discourse, and dampen the tendency toward posing, then why not an old-fashioned radio debate? Instead of debating under klieg lights, how about having the candidates in the same soundproof room, with extended time for responses to questions from individuals well-versed in the issues? It would be healthy to watch the debate without having to think about Michele Bachmann’s acrylic French manicure or how Perry’s shoulders fill his suit or who’s wearing what color tie.

Such is the different perspective between radio and television that it’s often been said that individuals who heard Richard Nixon debate Kennedy in 1960 believed Nixon won, while those who watched gave the debate victory to JFK. Maybe the 2012 race would benefit from more of a listening experience.

Ban the cameras and the crowds and just turn on the microphones. It’s time to really listen to the candidates instead of being distracted by everything else.

• Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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