How to Fix Presidential Debates: What We Can Learn from Britain

During the 2008 election, John McCain pledged that, if elected President, he would introduce a form of Britain’s famous Prime Minister’s Questions – the weekly affair that involves the Prime Minister being grilled by members of Parliament, often to entertaining results.

John McCain did not win, and Barack Obama did not reciprocate the pledge. As such, there is no U.S. version of Prime Minister’s Questions. Now the furthest public engagement we have between the White House and Congress is when members interrupt the President’s speeches.

Of course, there are many issues regarding creating such a system in the United States, so the practicality of such a system is dubious. That said, the desire for one reflects an inherent interest in having our leaders held more accountable for their positions and policies. It is rooted in the belief that great policy, and great democracy, relies on great debate.

The United Kingdom is finishing their major election just as ours is starting. While President’s Questions might not happen anytime soon, perhaps there are some ideas that just might do well on this side of the pond going into 2016.

In 2010, for the first time, the United Kingdom had Presidential-style debates for the top candidates most likely to become Prime Minister. While some bemoaned the “presidentialization” of U.K. parliamentary elections, the concept caught fire. American political advisers, used to preparing for such debates, became a necessary part of the campaigns. The results of those first debates fundamentally altered the discourse of that campaign, and in this cycle the debates were featured prominently. But since such debates are new, they have not become firm political norms. Indeed, David Cameron has not suffered significant political damage for refusing to appear in any traditional debate, except one, with his rivals (but none between him and main challenger Ed Miliband). Cameron has appeared, however, in a couple of the town hall-style “debates” that have taken place (more like forums, since multiple candidates don’t take the stage at the same time).

In all these debates, both the town halls and traditional ones, there has been a lot less grandstanding, and a lot more engagement. Unlike our debates, which have become two hours of two-minute campaign speeches, these British debates featured a lot more discussion and relied on a lot less gimmicks and trivial matters. While not perfect by any means, there are some aspects of the British debates we would be better off adopting for both the primary and general election debates:

  • Rules: Since American presidential debates have been taken over by the Republican-Democratic partnership known as the Commission on Presidential Debates, debate rules have been negotiated exclusively by the two main candidates in the general election. These rules have become lengthy contracts. They detail everything from what the camera can show while one candidate is speaking, to regulating the use of pens by candidates, to time limits for speaking. This process has been used for primary debates, and non-presidential debates as well (lest we forget ‘fangate‘). All this has done has served to stifle any natural discussion of the issues, and turned debates into glorified game shows (with colored lights and all). More discretion should be given to moderators to, well, moderate a fruitful discussion.
    This has been the case in the Prime Minister’s Debates so far. The rules have been present to guide the discussion, but the moderator isn’t there with a stopwatch following strict commandments. Rather, the discussion itself has guided the moderators in their job.
    There’s a famous episode of The West Wing where the candidates have a live debate. At the beginning, as the moderator recites the rules candidate, Arnold Vinick chimes in:

    [W]e could go on with this ritual and let the rules decide how much you’re going to learn about the next President of the United States, or we could have a debate Lincoln would have been proud of. We could junk the rules. We could let our able and judicious moderator ask us questions. And we could forget about whether each of us had the exact same number of seconds to speak. We could have a real debate.

If only.

  • Time and topics: An hour-and-a-half, or two hours, is sometimes not enough to have a discussion about all the issues that matter. Then why do we allow our debates to be filled with asinine, trivial, and hyperfocused questions that ultimately don’t factor in to the issues that matter?
    This was the format for the ITV Leaders’ Debate on April 2nd: Two hours for ostensibly four questions. Each question touched on a major topic and of course there were follow-ups within them, but they weren’t contrived. Rather, the follow-ups followed the course of the conversation, rather than the pre-planned ones we see in ours that interrupt discussion.
  • Fairness: While we’re looking at that ITV format, it’s helpful to point out that those are equal times given to every candidate. In the past, primary debates have tended to give a large disproportionate amount of questions and speaking time to “front-runner” candidates, helping ensure an almost self-fulfilling prophecy by excluding other candidates from speaking. It is also important to point out that, in this format, those aren’t blocks of minutes given to candidates to give stump speeches without interruption. The order just indicates which candidate is given first priority to initiate a discussion from a question, then there is free discussion, with candidates who wanted to jump in free to do so at will.
    While we’re on the topic of fairness, we might also want to point out how many “minor” candidates were included. The leaders of UKIP, Green Party, and Plaid Cymru all held equal status on the same stage, even though they are not likely to gain more than a handful of seats.
  • Engagement with audience: This, above all, could be the most revolutionary shakeup of American debates. In most of the debates this cycle in Britain, regardless of format, there has been a unique level of audience interaction. Whether it was unplanned – like when audience member Victoria Prosser interrupted David Cameron – or when it was part of the format, audience involvement has always been interesting, engaging, and constructive. It has put the so-called YouTube debates to shame. In the case of Prosser interrupting the Prime Minister, she was not shouted down, or disregarded, or ejected. Rather, Cameron engaged with her and responded to her concerns. In the town hall forums, audience members were not used as mere props, like they have become here in America. The questions were not pre-approved or planned. Rather, the forum was like an actual town hall. Audience members raised their hands, asked questions, followed-up their questions, (respectfully) interrupted, and engaged with the candidates. The moderators did their job to make sure no one person was dominating the conversation and elicited the audience members’ interaction.
    This might seem fraught with problems. Indeed, there has been concern that the audience for the most recent forum was filled with activists who claimed to be undecided voters. But what about the inevitable trolls? People who simply want to be the next Joe the Plumber and catch the candidates, or otherwise just make a scene? Of course, a lot of effort would be necessary in vetting the audience beforehand; that’s what producers are for. During the debate, an attentive, neutral person in charge would have to get a read on what is going and act swiftly; that’s what a moderator is for. And when all else fails, candidates should respond with the tact they will need if they get the job as President. This is how Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats leader, responded when a member of the audience asked him if he had “plans for a new job after next week, after you become unemployed and your party becomes an irrelevance.” Quick, simple, and ready to move on to talk about things voters actually want to listen to.

The Democratic National Committee this week released their plan for debates for this upcoming primary season. The Republican National Committee has already come out with theirs. We are about to enter that quadrennial time that leaves a lot of Americans disillusioned and frustrated. (Might I also point out that the election in Britain has only been about six weeks long?) A change in the American debates can result in a better political process for all involved, creating important discussion and an engaged, informed electorate. Then, maybe, we can get around to having that President’s Questions that McCain was hoping for.

Cover photo: Doug Mills/New York Times.