Let’s Debate Debates
The Republican party selected Milwaukee as the site for its 2024 National Convention. The Democratic party just announced it will hold its Convention in Chicago. The first Republican presidential primary “debate” will be held in Milwaukee in August.
The forums the voters are subjected to prior to elections are often mischaracterized as debates. They are tightly controlled by the parties, media, and pollsters. They deprive the voting public of serious conversation about the issues they care most about and prevent the voters from evaluating candidates who are highly qualified and on the ballot, but unable to meet the criteria that are designed to keep them off the stage.
There are many problems with the current process. Media organizations have long enjoyed a prominent role. Their decision to become partisan advocates, rather than the watchdogs of truth intended by our founders, disqualifies them from continuing. Members of the media are typically debate moderators and questioners. The subjects selected and the wording of questions often reflect a political agenda and bias that have no place in an honest debate.
Criteria for inclusion in debates often include polling thresholds and fund-raising totals. The parties cooperate with the media on this because it eliminates competition for the candidates they back, locking out independents who may be more inclined to speak important truths, including criticisms of the parties themselves. The news media ignore candidates who are highly qualified outsiders. In my personal experience running for governor in 2022, despite having two master’s degrees, a 30-year career as a hospital administrator, responsibility for a $200 million budget and, most importantly, a track record of some of the best outcomes in the country, most of the media would not even acknowledge I was a candidate. Without exposure to the candidates, the voters cannot evaluate them. The pollsters do not include the “unknown” in the polling until they have no choice. The media and the pollsters assure that low poll numbers become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the media did their job and asked the basic questions: Who is this candidate? Why is she/he running? and How would she/he govern? The voters could draw their own conclusions.
The debate halls are filled with hand-picked supporters of candidates and others who are connected. They often distract from the seriousness of the event by cheering and jeering, despite being asked to conduct themselves respectfully. Ordinary citizens who would enjoy participating as audience members are shut out.
There are already interesting developments in the Democratic and Republican candidate selection process. The Democrats have changed their primary schedule to pave the way for a weak Joe Biden to pursue a second term. States in which he performed poorly have been cast aside to allow those who are most likely to support his second term to go first.
Despite the party’s efforts to dissuade challengers to Biden, Marianne Williamson, a self-help author, and Robert Kennedy Jr., Robert Kennedy’s son and JFK’s nephew, have jumped into the race. The media will ignore Williamson while they can and have already labeled Robert Kennedy as inconsequential and “controversial.” He is against vaccine requirements and is well-known as a maverick in Democratic circles. He refuses to toe the party line and says what he believes regardless of who is offended. Expect the Democratic party, with assistance from the media, to try to shut out any opposition to Biden.
On the Republican side, Vivek Ramaswamy, an Ohio businessman, has declared his candidacy. He is being largely ignored but when he has been given a voice, he seems to be a truth teller, well-informed, thoughtful, and articulate. Voters would benefit from hearing more from him. Expect the Republican party to try to shut him out the process, while at the same time doing all they can to keep Donald Trump from being their nominee. They will try to force party unity by demanding a promise to support the candidate of the party in exchange for a place on the debate stage.
It wouldn’t be hard to improve over what we are currently doing. Here are some ideas.
Anyone who meets the criteria to be on the ballot should be welcome on the debate stage. Fundraising and polling are contrived indicators of voter priorities.
The candidates themselves should ask any questions they choose of each other. There should be no limits placed on the topics or the questions. The only moderation should be in the form of strict timekeeping. This would tell the voters a great deal about what candidates think is important and allow them to expose vulnerabilities of their opponents. Candidates would highlight their own qualifications and differentiate themselves from opponents through pointed, pertinent questions and in opening and closing statements.
The media should have no role other than to report on the event.
Hold the debates in neutral settings that are owned by the people such as state capitols, city halls, court houses, libraries, or any other public setting.
Fill the audience seats with everyday citizens who secure a spot through a drawing open to all eligible voters. Make debates public forums, not events for the well-connected.
These are just a few ideas to spark conversation. The increasingly meaningless events that are fed to us by those who control the political process contribute little to informing the electorate. Let’s debate debates.