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Rethinking The Presidential Debate


There are a whole lot of presidential debates between now and the second Tuesday of November 2016; 12 Republican primary debates, six Democratic ones, a few more general election debates and that's not even counting third parties. If that thought makes you cringe, the Annenberg Public Policy Center wants to help. The center has come up with a whole list of ways to reform the debates. It was put together by a bipartisan group of the sort of people who've seen presidential debates up close. Two members of that working group join me now. Anita Dunn, who was a White House communications director for President Obama and an adviser on his presidential campaign; she joins me here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

ANITA DUNN: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: And Beth Myers, who was a campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2008 and a senior adviser to his 2012 campaign. She joins us on the line from WGBH in Boston. Beth, thanks for being with us.

BETH MYERS: Thank you for having us, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, I'm going to put this question to both of you. What needs fixing? What's so broken about the way debates work now? Anita.

DUNN: I don't think I would call it broken as much as I would call it a system that desperately needs to evolve in order to communicate with people in the 21st century. There's no other part of a presidential campaign that is basically functioning the same way it did in 1988, but that's what our general election debates are like. And the country has changed, how we communicate has changed, and it's really time for the debates to catch up with it in order to remain relevant and informative to voters.

MARTIN: And, Beth, let's just dig into this. How do you begin to fix that? I mean, presumably, there's a reason why this format has perpetuated for all these many years. You get the candidates on a stage, you ask them questions, and they answer those questions in a debate format.

MYERS: Well, one thing in our recommendations is to get rid of the live audiences for the non-town hall debates so that the candidates aren't distracted by catering to all the people that are brought into town for the spectacle of the large debates. The group felt strongly that this was the opportunity for voters to view the candidates and assess their qualifications for the job and every distraction that can be taken away is a good thing.

MARTIN: I want to walk through several more of these recommendations. You all suggest something in this report called the chess clock model. Anita, can you explain what that means?

DUNN: The chess clock basically gives both candidates the same amount of time. If it's a 90-minute debate, they have 45 minutes each. They decide how to use the time, what issues they want to talk most about, and it also adds an element of suspense to the debate, as people get near the end and have they saved enough time to make their key points that they want to make at the end. But it takes the control away from outside sources and really gives it to the candidates.

MARTIN: But I would imagine there's a risk in that - that perhaps they don't engage directly with one another. If you're just giving them the time to use at will, they could just go back to their talking points.

DUNN: Well, I think you see a lot of that in current debates, actually, where candidates stay very much on their talking points. I think that when you have two candidates and very little moderator, what you get is much more interaction, or the candidate who doesn't interact isn't going to look as good. Let's not forget there's an audience out there of voters.

MARTIN: What about this idea of diminishing the role of the moderator? I imagine people who have moderated these debates in the past would say, well, I'd consider it to be a success if I, as the moderator, have gotten the candidates to answer a direct question.

DUNN: So, Rachel, that raises the question of, what is a debate. Is it a joint news conference? Is it an event that is held so that the press can play their traditional role of accountability? There are plenty of times during a campaign that candidates talk to the press. There's only one time in a campaign where the candidates stand side by side and talk directly to the American people.

MYERS: And to each other.

MARTIN: Right.

DUNN: And to each other.

MYERS: And having been in the room where these debates happen, these guys - or these women - are very focused on interaction with the other person. And the best moments, frankly, of the 2012 debates were when President Obama and Governor Romney were talking to each other and interacting with each other.

MARTIN: I don't have to tell you that people don't have a whole lot of faith in politics these days, and especially the tone of the political discourse. Is there a concern that if you let the two candidates just, kind of, hash it out on stage, that will turn some people off?

DUNN: I think that the price you pay for appearing to be shrill or negative or overly defensive is so extraordinary. And what you generally see in these debates is that candidates who have been very harsh on the campaign trail - when they are side-by-side, face-to-face, they tone it down. And I think it's one of the reasons why the debates really are something that we think is so important as part of the process. It's a place where money doesn't matter, where it's not advertising, it's not data analytics, it's not polling. It's the candidates. And it's an opportunity for the American people to compare them, side by side.

MARTIN: Anita Dunn, former senior adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaigns and Beth Myers, who was an adviser on Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. Thanks to both of you.

DUNN: Oh, thank you for having us, Rachel.

MYERS: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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