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 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 counterintuitive a proposition could possibly be a good idea. Let me offer three reasons.
1. We would present a more realistic test. The current debates imagine that what truly matters in a leader is his or her 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 staff and even outside experts. By allowing candidates to do the same for 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 that we will see in office.
A first quick reaction tells us nothing. A gaffe is always possible, and then the gaffe becomes the story. Of course, one might respond that it matters a great deal whether one’s first response to an unexpected twist is strong, decisive and sharp. But this is absurd. According to William Franklin Knox, secretary of the Navy under Franklin Roosevelt, when the commander in chief received news of the attack on Pearl Harbor he was “white as a sheet” and “visibly shaken.” He needed a few moments to compose himself. He then consulted his aides, as he should have. Only then did he decide how to respond. I don’t suppose any of us would say that Roosevelt was a terrible president because at first report he wasn’t sure precisely what to do.
2. 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 snappy 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 their time to answer is counted down in seconds.
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of our electoral process is the reduction of important and difficult issues to slogans and applause lines. By constructing lists of people to hate, candidates are deliberately bypassing the higher cognitive processes and appealing to emotion alone. When we create incentives for candidates to give quick, easy answers to tough questions, we promote all that is most terrifying about our politics.
3. 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 more. As we watched the candidates choose where to spend their time, we would learn about what issues each considers most important — or, at minimum, what issues the candidate thinks require 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 allocate time might conceivably tell us more about them than the content of their answers. Given the likelihood that different candidates would choose to spend different amounts of time on different questions, we would 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 task that more closely resembles the job they hope to fill, reducing the incentive for applause lines and enabling us to compare the candidates’ priorities by studying how they allocate their time.
Stephen L. Carter is a law professor at Yale University.