At the time of writing, Thursday’s GOP debate hadn’t taken place yet. So, although we cannot recap the debate, there are a couple things we can guarantee almost with certainty: Hillary Clinton will be bashed, Reagan will be invoked and Donald Trump will be orange. While we’re sure there will be many interesting moments to discuss when the debate is over (like all the different ways one can say “I will repeal the Iran deal”), there is an issue that is largely glossed over when discussing a debate like this: the shortcomings in the nature of the debates themselves. Viewers and pundits spend so much time and energy on the clever catch phrases and mortifying gaffes that the structure of these primary debates, which is beyond flawed, is completely ignored.
First off, having 10 candidates on stage at once is completely absurd. A debate is between two parties, maybe three at the most, but there is no way a debate with 10 strongly opinionated people could include any sort of meaningful dialogue or exchange. Every person on that stage is trying their best to become one of the most powerful people in the world, and they have all been thriving in a political system where the way to curry favor is coming up with the best sound bite or gif that they possibly can. This means that a good part of any debate they are involved in will be filled with pre-prepared catchphrases and broad rhetoric meant to appeal to their already established base. In a long, in depth debate with a smaller field and a good moderator, this pandering will eventually give way to some actual discussion once the candidates have exhausted all of their rehearsed responses. When there are 10 candidates on the stage for a debate that takes place in the same time frame, however, all there is time for is each candidates’ most tweetable phrase of the night. Each one of them knows how limited their screen time is going to be, so they use every second they get to broadly promote their agenda, no matter how off topic a response like that may be. It gets to the point that candidates are so worried that they won’t get enough exposure that they will often encroach on other people’s turn to speak to interject something that has little to nothing to do with the topic at hand. This huge field also lends itself to skewed time allotment per candidate. The network wants the highest ratings possible, so the candidate who says the most interesting, combative or outlandish things gets the most screen time while candidates who remain calm and articulate are largely ignored.
This format of debate is also largely missing one of the most important aspects of debate: actual exchange between candidates. Since the field is so large and everyone has to get at least some time, there are very few times when candidates get to actually go head to head with each other and argue over differences in their platforms. In the rare occasions that this does happen, there are usually allowed only thirty seconds or so to rebut each other, which is barely enough time to get in a veiled insult and a vague policy promise. Instead of an actual debate, these events become more like question and answer sessions, an opportunity for each candidate to present the most digestible parts of their platforms to the country and get standing ovations for saying things like “Lets take America back!”
If primary debates are to be at all meaningful, there have to be some changes to the way they are structured. First off, the number of candidates on the stage at any given time needs to be reduced drastically. We question whether or not there can really be ten serious contenders for one party’s nomination for the presidency, but if that number is sacred, then we believe that it should be split up into two separate two-hour debates, with five candidates participating each night. This way, each candidate can get twice the screen time, and perhaps they could actually get to some issues in an in-depth way. It would also be beneficial to increase the length and frequency of exchanges between the candidates. Even if it leads to less questions being addressed, more back and forth will help watchers better understand how candidates differ and why one’s policy may be better than another. While no televised primary debate will ever be perfect intellectual discourse, what we have now are more farce then debate.