Democratizing the Debates
by Kathleen Hall Jamieson
October 22, 2020
This interview with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the Walter and Leonore Director of the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Program Director of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
frank | We're focused mostly on Presidential debate this month. How it works, why it works the way that it does. We’ve really looked at Democratizing The Debates, and the suggestions you put out.
I love my suggestions.
It's a great committee.
It's a really cool committee.
I would love to go through some of the suggestions with you, but I want to start with the Presidential Debate Commission, who are the people, at least with general election debates, in charge.
Yes. They're in charge. They don't have any statutory authority. So they're in charge because they put themselves in charge, and because the candidates granted them the right to do that. Nothing says an alternative model couldn't be set up. The question is, would the candidates embrace the alternative model?
And show up.
And show up. If the candidates said, "We like this model better and we're going to show up here," the Debate Commission has no basis from which to argue the candidates have to show up at its venue. One of the purposes of the recommendations was not to set up an alternative, it was to try to get the Debate Commission to adopt recommendations that we think would improve the quality of the debates.
But they have a model underlying their debates that is problematic. Because they have a live audience as an integral part, and we warned in the report about the hazards of a live audience.
We saw our concerns realized in 2016 when the Republican campaign brought individuals to the debate with an intent to rattle Hillary Clinton. And also when you heard audiences audibly responding to questions. If you take a look at debate three, the third presidential debate, exclude the vice presidential debate, in which Chris Wallace is asking the questions. Take a look at the question that he is asking about the Russian-hacked WikiLeaks released segments from a Clinton speech, in which she talked about open trade and open borders. At the point at which he's asking the question, you hear the audience applauding and responding favorably to the question. You hear Donald Trump thanking him for the question, and you hear Chris Wallace telling the audience that it's supposed to be quiet.
Now what that is doing, and we have research to show this that we reported in the document you're focusing on, was that that kind of audience cuing affects the audience at home. Two of the things we warned about, people being brought into the audience in order to try to rattle candidates happened, and secondly you had audience interaction caught on tape, and as a result are on the digital record, and as a result, potentially influence the audience at home. We don't think that's fair to the candidates. We don't think it's fair to the process.
When you put this research out, was the Debate Commission hesitant to accept the suggestions or defensive?
They're hesitant to suggestions about the live audience because that's how they fund the debate. Their model is a costly model. They bring all sorts of preparation to a specific venue, at a specific time that is live, with a large audience there, and that increases their costs dramatically. If you simply went to a studio model, you could mount a debate in 10 days. And you wouldn't require the expense. But the tickets to get into the audience pay back the funders who fund the model that funds the commission. And so they can't get rid of the audience because they don't have an alternative funding mechanism.
They put them on university campuses and charge the students to come?
No. They have donors who contribute the costs. The universities put up money in order to get the debate. The universities raise and put up money. It'd be very interesting for you to ask the Debate Commission how many students actually get to sit in the audience as audience members in a typical debate in 2016, as opposed to are able to work as ushers. We believe that the percent of students in the audience is relatively small.
Because the tickets are essentially given out through the university to its donors, because they had to raise money to be able to bring the debate and to the two political parties or to the candidates representing the two political parties. What that means is the funding model by which they raise the money to hold the debates, and pay for their staff and the infrastructure, is gotten in exchange for the understanding that tickets are going to go back to donors who get to sit in the audience, which means the number of tickets available to students who would actually sit and watch the debate itself, as opposed to watching it on a television monitor some place is relatively small.
The problem we have with the live audience is it interferes with people's ability to hear the debate as a debate, unmediated by things that are distracting and could potentially create influence.
You published a chart that shows responses without audience and responses with. It's haunting.
We had seen it in enough debates in the past that we were able to study it. If you have a single instance, you don't know that that isn't just a one-off. But when you have multiple instances in which you can clean the audio, so you can basically take out the audience response; and sometimes that's difficult because the audience response is ongoing as the candidates are speaking. Getting it to be absolutely clean is difficult. So you have to find instances in which you really can clean that audio track enough so that nobody's hearing any of those responses. But when you've got more than one instance and you see exactly the same effect, the likelihood that it is the audience producing the effect goes way up.
It makes it a much stronger inference, it's called the case confound. You've got case confound. You don't know that there aren't other things in that one instance that produced your response. But when what you have is the common element across your multiple instances being the audience interaction, your confidence that it's what produced the negative response is much higher.
We spoke with Mike McCurry about debate interference. He mentioned how audience can also help the candidates – listing President Clinton and President Trump as two examples of candidates who were actually more effective because they were able to play off an audience well. Does that matter?
That's an argument for having one town hall debate. The audience then is the town hall. But it is not a sufficiently great advantage to take the risk that people you cannot control will be put into the audience. Bill Clinton's accusers were put into the audience by the Trump campaign and Frank Fahrenkopf of the debate commission had to keep them from being seated in a place that would have been completely inappropriate. They were going to be seated in the family section and he basically intervened in order to make sure that that didn't happen.
You can't control it. Once you have an audience model that is a live audience, it's very hard to control that. But then secondly, you can't control the audience interaction. Now, a candidate might be benefited by that. I suspect that Donald Trump is very pleased by the audience reaction to the question about open trade and open borders. I suspect Hillary Clinton is not. But you can't in advance anticipate who's going to be advantaged or disadvantaged.
Nor do you want to roll the dice that way and play games with audience response. Potentially, you're prejudicing the way in which people see the debate, debate may be decisive in a voting decision, and in a close election, that could determine outcome. Some candidates do relish the chance to interact with an audience, and it's valuable to watch them doing it. One can gain that advantage in a town hall format, which we would preserve. We preserve a town hall format. A town hall format can happen in studio and doesn't require that there be an audience beyond those who are selected for the town hall.
You also make suggestions around moderators. It’s been pointed out that when prepping a Presidential candidate, a good amount of time is spent prepping the candidate to confront the journalist. I never thought of it that way.
Well first, in the polarized news environment right now, the news outlet that is essentially hosting the debate, is the outlet that gets the moderator. They pick the moderator that gives you the network that comes in behind the debate. In this news environment, virtually every network has a political identity. Those who are advantaged by saying that the mainstream networks are liberal have increased the public perception that they are. Those who have said that MSNBC is extremely liberal or Fox is extremely conservative have increased the likelihood that people perceive that they are. So whether they are or not, that perception is there.
When a journalist comes from a network, even if the journalist is a traditional journalist and hasn't fallen into the trap of engaging in ideological commentary, and many journalists have not fallen into that trap, the journalist is nonetheless perceived as being identified with the network.
And that potentially carries political expectations that the candidate can play off of if the candidate is advantaged by doing so. If there's a person who comes into moderate who doesn't carry that baggage, you'd increase the likelihood that the moderator is simply a backdrop presence, is not a third player in the exchange.
Additionally, journalists' tendency is not to think from the perspective of the audience. It's to think from the perspective of journalism, and as a result, to ask questions that advance a news agenda, but don't advance public understanding. A lot of people watch debates who don't pay high attention to the news. So a question that to you or to me because we watch a lot of news, or to a journalist because they produce a lot of news, would seem like a perfectly reasonable question because it assumes that you have a background knowledge, is not at all reasonable to a person in the audience who is saying, "What? What do they mean, open trade, open borders?" And as a result, there's not enough contextual background in some of these questions.
That doesn't mean the debates aren't useful and that those changes aren't useful. They would be more useful if the questions were more general questions and we have another part of the report that tries to speak to that.
But the other thing that we're trying to accomplish by saying, "We don't necessarily have to have a journalist who's in broadcast as a moderator," is that that person now under the debate commission model brings their network in behind them.
When the network comes in behind them, it produces the debate. We want the debate to be open to everyone else to be able to do whatever they want with it. So if the journalist would bring in the journalist's network, and the journalist's network says, "All rights are off. We claim no rights to this. Anybody can cut it up any way they want. They can refashion it into little bytes. They can repurpose it with new memes." We think this is desirable. Because we think that there's an emerging audience that's not going to consume 90 minutes of presidential debate. There's a lot of the existing audience that doesn't. The fall-off in viewership in debates is relatively high. If we open up the creativity that comes with having access, and you can do anything you want in real time, we would increase the likelihood that we get viewership.
You could solve part of our problem by having the broadcast network come in behind the journalist who's selected by the moderator. You wouldn't necessarily solve your moderator problem, but you could solve the problems with the networks coming behind by having the network agree as a condition of doing the debate that it's not its debate. That in fact, it is the debate for any use that anybody wants and that it will provide an open stream with multiple cameras so that every camera is feeding out in a way that lets you sitting on the internet provider and repurpose.
You might decide it might be interesting to always have one camera on the candidate and the other candidate is split-screened. You might want to put four screens up and put on one screen fact-checking. You could split this any number of ways. What you have is whatever your feed is off your social media network. Now people do try to create that on their handheld devices. So we know dual screening is happening. But we could make it more productive if people knew in the live-streaming fashion they had multiple camera access and could reconfigure.
We think we open creativity. We also think if we did it that way, other networks would brand it differently and would repurpose it in real-time differently. So for example, we could have the debate automatically in Spanish with Telemundo or Envision creating live events with big communities watching live stream on big live screens with all sorts of local stuff happening. It's awfully difficult for them to do that under the current scenario because they'd be branding to the network that was producing. That's not in their self-interest. So this would let them basically rebrand and innovate.
It's acknowledging that we're in a different age. Usually when people say, "Let's acknowledge that we're in a digital age." They say, "Well let's take some questions from people who get to vote on the internet." Okay. But that doesn't open the capacity to innovate with the content in ways that might make it more helpful for the audience on the back end. I would like in real-time very quickly to be able to preset and say I care about four issues. I want all the content on those four issues to come out to me in bytes. And then I want to create memes against it. I want to become a communicator about the debates because in my community, we really care about... And then I will repurpose them to my community in order to get discussions going and feedback loops created.
You can imagine all the ways in which the generation that is native to digital experience could recreate the debate experience while holding the core of 90 minutes for an audience that is frankly older and more accustomed to extended viewing.
The suggestion ostensibly gives young people familiar with digital the tools to make it what they want, rather than having a group of people assume what they want.
The producers try to produce for the broadest possible audience. But the reality is, producers are actually producing for themselves. Because that's the audience they project out. Whatever audience I am able to create for is going to be different than the audience you're going to create for, that is going to be different from the audience someone else is creating for. Ideally in this world, you not only would have all of those different perspectives actively creating, but we'd use the digital capacity to interact and to repurpose.
The idea that I might take a snippet of the debate, and occasionally we see this happening, and I might find a way to re-communicate it in real time, in a way that helps people interpret differently what just happened, makes us active co-creators, not simply passive re-fashioners.
When Romney in 2012 suggested that he would defund government funding for PBS, you had the Big Bird meme that happened. Very quickly. Big Bird is holding up signs, “I will work for food.” Big Bird is saying, “brought to you by the letters F U.” Those are people who've engaged on the funding of PBS issue to say, "I disapprove." And they have essentially become a party to the debate in their own right as they communicate out, "See Romney in this context." And it's not only clever, it's substantive, because one of the things that PBS brings us is Sesame Street. Big Bird is iconic. And in that moment, a whole different way of seeing that moment in the debate occurred.
You saw it in 2016, when Donald Trump was walking behind Hillary Clinton in a somewhat odd fashion, and you immediately saw memes being generated that suggested that people should report the stalker, etc. What that does is it gives the audience the capacity to help those in their networks see something the way that they usually thought of as an observer saw it, but now it's not an observer. It's a person who is co-creating meaning. So the capacity is there for us to do something very valuable, which is us to talk to people who are in our network, and have them talk back to us, as we talk back to the process that interprets for us. It means we become gatekeepers in a different way than the system would let us.
Now we say, "What's the alternative to having a journalist?" First you have to have somebody who is comfortable having an earphone. The first thing the networks say is, "Nobody else can do this. They're not accustomed to being talked to with an earphone." It's a real critique. You don't want someone saying, "Huh, what?" because someone's talking in their ear. So it's going to have to be somebody who's got some experience with broadcast or at least can demonstrably handle the directions that come with somebody talking in your ear. And what they're talking in the ear for is essentially trying to keep everything moving. And occasionally you get things happening in debates where the moderator has to moderate through a situation, such as the power going out during the Carter/Ford debate.
It's not a small task. But you have highly educated people who can handle these kinds of functions. The question is, can you get a former judge? Can you get a former college president? Can you get a columnist who is widely respected, or a pair of columnists who are already inside television structures because they're on air enough they're used to having something in their ear. And the answer is, yes you can. It's not that you can lay up a group right now and say, "Well they would be this within this group," it's that if you knew you had that as the challenge, you would very seriously audition in the process to get to it. The thing you would lose is that some journalists bring a very deep expertise in an area and are able to frame it from a news perspective that their audiences are comfortable with.
So Martha Raddatz, she's not a general reporter. She's a specialist reporter. And she's very good at foreign affairs. With Chris Wallace, what you've got is a generalist reporter. What Chris Wallace is very good at is asking questions. The problem is he carries in the identity with Fox News. But he's a very traditional journalist in terms of what he does. So you would be asking to see whether you can decouple the broadcast problem, which is bringing in the network which means you've got branding, if you're going to keep the journalists. There'd be some journalists who do this very well, they have done it very well.
If you can't decouple that, then you're looking for someone who is able to take directions in their ear and not get into the debate themselves.
Candy Crowley made a mistake in 2012 fact-checking a debate in real-time, and she was wrong. So you have to make sure that you've got the restraint not to make a mistake. Max Frankel made a mistake in '76. His fact-checking of Gerald Ford on the so-called liberation of Poland was inaccurate. Gerald Ford was stating what had been a traditional presidential position of Republicans and Democrats. He didn't state it in an articulate fashion, but it is the traditional position. Frankel made that a gaffe. Ford didn't make that a gaffe. And for the week after that debate as the press is pressuring Ford to say he'd made a mistake, Ford is legitimately saying, "No I didn't. That is the position of the United States."
Finally, because he's flatlining in the polls, he says, "Alright, mistake, mistake." He didn't believe it was a mistake. History says it wasn't a mistake because what he was actually describing, what happened in the Gdansk shipyard. That is, the people in those countries behind the Soviet bloc never thought they were controlled by those countries. They were asserting their freedom. And that is what he meant to say. The government position of the US always was, "We will not acknowledge the legitimacy of the Soviet control. We will assert that the right of those people to be free is an absolute right."
So you have to be very careful in that position, that you don't make the arrogant mistake of intruding yourself into the process and potentially changing the dynamic.
The same thing happened in the Bush/Clinton debate where the moderator, Carole Simpson, basically tries to rephrase an inarticulate question in a town hall and in the process, mis-phrases it and makes Bush look worse than he already had looked, because the question was fundamentally inarticulate. They've solved the problem of inarticulate questions because now they're submitted in advance. But if you go back and look at that exchange, the young woman who asked the question is not asking what she thinks she's asking. And George Herbert Walker Bush is trying to literally interpret her question, when you can't. It makes no sense. Then Carole Simpson comes in and again tries to re-interpret the question and that's not what she meant either, so now George Herbert Walker Bush tries to adapt to Carole Simpson.
He looks bad because that situation trapped him. I'm not suggesting that he was an articulate person or he should have been re-elected president. In that moment, however, the debate structure hurt him and it was unfair.
Is it part of the suggestion also that the moderator then plays a lesser role?
Can you talk about how their role would be pulled back?
Well the instances I've cited are the exceptions. Most debate moderators have acted the way Jim Lehrer acted. And I think he has moderated more debates than any other person. He no longer moderates them. The reason that he was selected so often is because he stayed absolutely neutral. And so you don't see moments in which he does something to change the dynamic in a way that disadvantages the candidate. Occasionally, he will call for clarification. I mean you look for his call for clarification; I actually wish he'd done it more often. He tries to make sure that the clarification comes from both sides. So that you don't have the candidates talking past each other.
The goal of a moderator is not to become the third debater in the debate. It is to tee up a question and let the interactions work within the constraints of time.
Now one problem is the moderator is also responsible for keeping the time and holding the rules. And there are times in which the moderator actually got the rules wrong. The moderator says to a candidate, "No it's not your turn," and the candidate says, "It is." It looks as if the candidate is being difficult, but the candidate is accurate. So in those moment, the candidate looks bad, but the candidate is in the right. It's a hard job to keep track of the rules on live television with audiences in excess of 60 million people.
The goal is to be neutral, to hold to the rules, and to tee up really good questions that help the broadest swath of the electorate. And when you hear confusion, so that a reasonable person would not understand the exchange, to step in and say, "I want to pause for a moment for each person to tell us what they mean by that term." Occasionally, those kinds of interventions clarify dramatically, so it's a tough job. But the more neutral the presence, the fairer the process.
I don't believe in fact-checking in real-time in debates. I know I run factcheck.org...
I was going to say...
I don't believe in it. Unless you're absolutely certain that it has been checked and rechecked and what they've said is exactly what has happened before. The language is the same as the language you've checked. I mean factcheck.org got its national audience thanks to Dick Cheney. We went from this tiny little operation in 2003/2004 that was set up to help journalists adjudicate facts, to a process with a national audience when Dick Cheney cited us in a Vice Presidential debate in 2004. Called us factcheck.com. That wasn't our name. People ran to factcheck.com. There was a surge against our servers. Our servers crashed. We were set up to deal with 10-20,000 journalists. We weren't set up to deal with millions of people coming to our site.
The funny part of it is, he said, dot com. So they went to a site called factcheck.com. That was a site that was owned by a nine-year-old girl and we tried to buy it. She sold it to another company who sold it to another company. It wound up being owned by George Soros. So when people went to it, they got an appeal against Cheney and Trump, because he was supporting Kerry. People then typed in the org, because they figured they must have gotten something wrong with com. That's when they started crashing our servers. But Cheney's citation of us is what made us national.
So can a candidate use the fact checkers in the debate? Yes. He got us wrong. Because Edwards had not used the same attack in the debate that we had checked the night of the debate. On the news that night, you heard our fact-checking on network news, because we'd fact-checked Edwards' statements against Cheney. Cheney's debate coaches told him if they cite Edwards just say factcheck.org cited that, and said it was inaccurate. That's what he did. Edwards made completely new claims because he knew we'd already fact-checked him. So we had this bizarre circumstance in which if the audience didn't come to us, they wouldn't have known Cheney was mis-citing us. But since he mis-cited us, and got our name wrong, we got all kinds of news play about them getting our name wrong, which meant we got to correct Cheney's mis-citation of what we’d done and we put our new fact check in the process.
So we were launched out of a marketing strategy that was extraordinarily clever. Get the Vice President to mis-cite your name. Wish I could figure out how we could do it again.
The idea is then to not do it live, but rather have this as a place people can come to after the debates.
Yeah, and have all the preexisting fact-checking available, which is part of what I like about dual screening. It gives you the capacity when a claim comes up. If we've already checked it, we will post in real time, and so will the other fact checkers. As soon as we've checked, we will post. Sometimes we've posted before the debate is over. But in some cases, you're doing fresh checking. It's a new claim. But what the multi-screening lets you do is run out a stream on all the fact-checking that is there in real-time. If that's how you want to watch the debate.
If you want to watch it talking to your friends, you can do that, too. Now all that currently exists. The current structure will let you do that. We just want to increase the likelihood that individuals can then interact with the content and those who are not getting the debate as the outlet, the privileged outlet spreading the debate, have as much capacity as that outlet to reuse the content.
And that would be the network branding it less as their own personal debate.
Right. This is just the debate. This is just the debate. You could call it the Presidential Debate Commission's Debate. The problem is, if you don't let the network do that, the network isn't going to pay for it.
That's when we thought philanthropy should step in and just put up the funding. It would get rid of the audience, if you put up the funding.
It would be a lot cheaper, too.
It would be a lot cheaper.
But the networks use it to promote themselves. Three, four days before the debate, they're hyping it. They're asking people to send in questions and blah blah blah. But that's unfair too. I mean, we note in the report, there aren't enough debates for all the major outlets to get a debate.
So why do the debates play favorites?
It's a good question. What do you think about the DNC taking the debate away from Fox News?
They didn't take it away. They're just not letting them have it.
What do you think about that?
I think if you're producing the debate, you should be able to put it any place you want. But notice my model, you wouldn't have the question. In my model, there wouldn't be a Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, ABC.
Right. Don't use any of them.
And then expect all of them to cover it. Our worry in the primaries is the audience that you aggregate up in the primaries is harder to aggregate. So a general election, everybody's going to vote.
We'd like everybody to vote. They're not all going to. So you've got a natural audience that's large. In the primaries, there really only is one, sometimes two, sometimes three, voting opportunities. The rest of the nation is basically a voyeur. So how do you aggregate up an audience that's large enough to increase the likelihood that you get the electorate educated over time? There's some advantage in the primaries to letting the networks promote the heck out of their debate to try to increase the size of the audience.
Our report didn't deal with primary debates, but it raises the interesting question, should you put a debate if you're Democrats on Fox, if you're Republicans, do you put one on MSNBC? And I would guess the Republicans are just as leery of MSNBC. A Rachel Maddow debate, can you imagine a Rachel Maddow debate? That said, Chris Wallace is a straight reporter. He does not play ideological games.
I mean there are players inside the networks you could trust to do it. You just don't know what else goes on. They're going to recruit the audience. And they're recruiting it from their constituency. You certainly don't want to have a Fox News debate for Democrats, because you're going to have an audience that's going to be disproportionately conservative.
I don't know many people familiar with the Presidential Debate Commission. They’re in control because they say they’re in control?
Yeah, that's right. There's no statutory authority.
I mean we've created social pressure on the candidates to debate. And the debate commission has offered a structure. But before the debate commission, The League of Women Voters handled the debates.
But the candidates want to put lots of constraints on what happens in debates. They want to dictate all sorts of things, and part of what we're trying to do with this report is say, "You know, some of those things you shouldn't get to dictate. Some of those things should actually stay more open." The League of Women’s Voters didn't want to do things that the candidates wanted, candidates basically said, "Well we're not going to come to you." Debate Commission constituted itself. Debate Commission was created by political partisans on behalf of political parties essentially. Without saying that. But look at who headed the Debate Commissions over time, it's basically operatives from the two parties.
And so could another model come up? I've expected the tech companies to put up their own debates. And basically say to the debate commission, "We've got an audience that's large enough that we're not going to work through you."
I wonder what would happen if they were seriously challenged.
Innovation is hard when somebody controls something. Because the purpose of the control is to drive out the innovation that might create a competing model. The place you're going to get the most innovation is going to be out of the digital sector because they're not thinking in the same terms as the traditional model, and I'd like to see the digital sector come to some kind of an agreement that they're going to put up their own debates.
I'd like to see a group take our model and get philanthropic funding and offer a model of debates.
It's refreshing to hear somebody so experienced, and who has spent so much time looking at this say, "Well no, actually, new debate is possible, and it would be really interesting."
Yeah, we said, "What is a debate supposed to do?"
What we want the debate to do is to reach the largest audience with the best information that creates legitimate capacities to see distinctions.
It's helpful to see similarities, too. I mean it's really important to ask what do the candidates agree about? So if you agree Afghanistan is a good war, you never debate Afghanistan. Well it was really helpful in 2008 to just put on the record, "Senator McCain, Senator Obama, you both agree Afghanistan is a good war. There are people who disagree with the idea that Afghanistan is a good war. Would you defend your position?" Because if we're trying to do this to get debates and campaigning more broadly to forecast governance, you want the areas of agreement featured as well as disagreement. The reason for agreement is they predict governance more readily than the disagreements, because the party out of power is going to support it. If the candidates support it, the likelihood is you can get it through Congress.
The way I approach debates when I do debate commentary, the first thing I ask is, "What did we learn about what they have in common?" Because it's highly likely to predict governance. I was doing live commentary for CBS in '96 in the debate between Dole and Clinton.
Clinton moves to Dole's position on exempting up to $500,000 of capital gains on a primary residence if you've held the primary residence for three years. So Dan Rather says to me, we're live, "Kathleen, who won/lost the debates?" I said, "Nobody won or lost the debates. The American people won. In particular, if you're thinking of selling your house, take it off the market. The likelihood that next year there's going to be a capital gains exclusion which means you're not going to have the level of taxation you would under the current system extraordinarily high. What you had today was that they both agreed, they were going to exclude it. I will predict that within the next six months after the election, it's going to change."
I got a letter from a woman and she wrote me and said, "You saved me an enormous amount of money."
That's the sort of analysis that's helpful. I don’t know that most people think that way.
Well most people are saying, "What are the differences? What are the differences? And who made the gaffe?" Which is a stupid way to approach debates. Because most of the things we call gaffes actually weren't gaffes.
The moment where Quayle says he's passed more legislation than John Kennedy. That's no gaffe. It's a great gotcha moment for Benson to say, "You're no John Kennedy. I know John Kennedy." John Kennedy was a completely undistinguished member of the Senate. He accomplished virtually nothing. He set up a foreign exchange program that brought four foreign exchange students from Africa, and one of them was not Barack Obama's father. That's it. His name isn't on legislation. Quayle actually had his name on a major jobs bill. Quayle is literally telling the truth, and it's identified as a gaffe because the Democrats choreographed a Benson moment in which they basically said, "John Kennedy, this icon, is not what you are." Well that's not what Quayle was claiming. "I'm charismatic." He was claiming, "I've done more in the Senate." He was absolutely accurate.
Now the part they should have featured was, the question that leads to that exchange, which was, "What is the first thing you'd do if you became President?" And he can't find an answer! So the inference that he was unprepared was right, but the evidence they were using was wrong. The evidence that he couldn't find the answer is what they should have featured. But it didn't digest as well. So the claim that he's John Kennedy, like John Kennedy, better than John Kennedy, that's not the issue distinction. He's better than John Kennedy. It's true, it's demonstrably true. He can't figure out what he'd do if he became President unexpectedly. That's a big deal.
And if you say, "Well John Kennedy would have figured it out." Maybe.
Maybe. But then you wonder is it the person who's best at debate that looks like the winner, and maybe not the person who's delivering the most honest or accurate information?
There's a problem with winner as a construct. You can't win at debate. I mean I'm a former debater. I can win an academic debate. In an academic debate, you have a single proposition which you argue over a one hour period in blocks of 15 minutes with a pro/con structure, affirmative and a negative structure. Then you reprise the structure. I can win or lose that, because I can assess on that argument, who argued most effectively, who used evidence most effectively. Was there a decisive argument that disabled the other side?
I can't claim winner or loser over an hour and a half. It makes no sense. The press has this construct, which is an athletic construct, or a war construct, you win or lose.
And then they come down to, "Was there a gaffe?" Well, what about the X number of minutes? And most of the things called gaffes are not gaffes.
Then they use military metaphors or they use sports metaphors in ways that make no sense. The moment someone does something that is supposedly disabling the other person's candidacy is a knockout punch. There's no such thing as a knockout punch. That's boxing, where the person is literally on the floor.
I've never seen a moment in discourse in which someone lands a knockout punch, where you just completely destroy the other side.
The person's down for the count. It just doesn't exist. So these crazed metaphors come in. Out of the ballpark home run. I've also never actually seen one of those. Because discourse is complex. You don't get that kind of really clear destruction or validation. Our whole vocabulary for looking at debates makes no sense.
The question we should ask is, "What did you learn that is of value to you in distinguishing the candidates about the ways in which they will govern?" And that can be about their issues or about their character and their temperamental dispositions. And as a result, a debate might be very valuable to you on issue or two, or one exchange or two. To me, one or two are completely different areas. I don't want to say that yours is less valuable than mine. The question is was the information accurate and did it forecast governance? If it did, it made you a better voter, probably didn't change your mind about how to vote. Very few minds are changed by debates. That is not their purpose. Their purpose is to increase the tie between campaigning and governance so that voters can cast informed votes in which the relationship is clearer to them and then you actually forecast governance. And by that standard, by the way, the debates in 2016 were good debates.
The public did know the positions of Clinton and Trump by the time they voted. They were uncivil. There's a whole lot of stuff that suggested temperament problems, particularly for one of the candidates, but people knew he was going to build a wall. Donald Trump has pretty much done exactly what we anticipated. Which means from that standpoint, it was a good election. I'm not at all surprised by the Trump presidency. At all.
I'm less surprised by the Trump presidency than by George W. Bush. Because George W. Bush said he wouldn't engage in nation-building. If you took that literally, you'd say, "Okay that's a bad forecast."
Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do. No surprise.
And his theme, I mean this is the band theme, promises made, promises kept. You can almost hear him checking those things off. In an odd sense, people look back at the election and say oh my God it was a terrible election. No, it wasn't. It accurately forecast the differences between the two candidates. And in the candidate who was elected, which is the only way you can assess the tide of governance, because you don't know what Hillary Clinton would have done because she wasn't elected. I presume she would have acted on her promises, but I don't know. I know with Trump. Okay at that level, it's a good campaign. You can't say people were misled. They also heard all of his uncivil discourse. Well he carried that into the presidency too. They voted knowing that. So there aren't really any surprises. The surprise is the public didn't know the extent of the Russian involvement. And I wrote a book about that.
The other criticism I hear often is that it doesn't make room for a third party to participate.
Well it does, because we've had Anderson debate Reagan, but Carter wouldn't debate.
But the threshold seems too high to some people.
Well you've got to have some threshold test. We addressed it. Basically, we would lower the threshold test. Because we think it's good to give the people the chance to have another party get the access. I mean right now you've got third parties trying to percolate up in our system. And widespread perception that it's two existing parties aren't coherent anymore. I mean there's a left in the Democratic party and there's a right in the Republican party. The right in the Republican party is being represented by Trump right now.
In this kind of situation, you'd expect a kind of Libertarian emergence on the right and you'd expect what is actually emerging on the left, which is a Green/Progressive left. And maybe then the moderates on both parties become the third party. They're just kind of the moderate.
I mean they're kind of the traditionalists. They believe in free trade. They believe in progressive taxation, but not too much, etc etc.
What I was worried about is the debate structure closes third parties out. And I don't think that's helpful to a body politic that should entertain their ideas.
Perot for awhile was ahead on the polls, so he's really a different case. I mean at one point, he was leading Clinton when he was running in '92.
What was he running as?
He was running Reformed candidate. Reformed Party. But he introduced the deficit as an issue. The other two didn't want to talk about it.
So you can plausibly argue the effort to bring down the deficit and draw down the debt was that Perot relentlessly put it on the national agenda in the debates as well as in advertising. Well that was a good thing for the country, not a bad thing.
So the idea that the third party functions introduce new ideas into the system, even if it never legitimizes and becomes a mainstream party, but you'd like it to have that capacity. Means that you should find a way to give it more access than we give it right now. And if we had a viable third party, Bloomberg would be running right now. Bloomberg can't figure out how to get through the Democratic primaries. I mean he could figure out how to win the general election. He just can't get through the Democratic primaries. And we don't have structures set up to let an Independent get the standing it takes to win. The way we've currently got it structured, it'll always draw down the support for one candidate. And Bloomberg's calculation is he'd draw down the support from the Democrat, and as a result, he'd cost the Democrat the White House, but he wouldn't win himself.
So there's no real sense in him running.
Not unless you want to have a re-election of Trump. I mean I assume that's his calculation.
There's ideological space there. And there are candidates who genuinely don't belong inside the parties. I mean Ron Paul didn't belong inside the Republican Party. You watch those primary debates and you said, "Okay, these people are Republicans and he's not." Bernie Sanders should not have run as a Democrat. Bernie Sanders derailed the Clinton presidency by running what was essentially a third party candidacy inside the Democratic debate.
And he's about to do it again.
Yeah, probably not with the same effect. I mean there are now other progressive candidates. And it's not that there isn't a progressive impulse inside the party. It's gravitated toward those positions.
He'll be looked at historically like William Jennings Bryan. William Jennings Bryan lost, but he teed up positions that became mainstream for political party.
So it's not that it was not productive that he did it, it's that it really damaged Hillary Clinton. And fights inside the party usually do hurt the nominee, not always. They sometimes can strengthen, Humphrey strengthened Kennedy in '60. That was essentially the challenge to the left to Kennedy. Kennedy was running as centrist. Kennedy was a kind of Bill Clinton. And the Republicans love to say the Kennedy tax cuts.
What do you propose for the actual structure of debate?
We've got multiple recommendations in the debate commission report. One is the chess clock model. Which is, everybody gets a block of time and you get to control the microphone by hitting the button. But if you talk at great length, then somebody's going to be able to rebut you uninterrupted because you've lost the capacity to come back. So we're trying to get equal division of time. We're also trying to get more exchange in that model.
Another is that you create 15 minute blocks in which the candidate gets to tee up her preferred issue. The other candidate gets to tee up her preferred issue. And also each side gets to tee up the issue they'd most like to attack the other side on. And then the moderator gets to put in the remaining blocks. Because sometimes you get debates in which one candidate has a really important block of ideas and the electorate needs to understand this person will try to advance them in the presidency and they never get asked about it in the debate.
But you have to have some time for the moderator because there are times in which neither candidate wants some issues teed up and the moderator's job should be teeing them up. Now we haven't been very successful about that. '88 never teed up the S&L crisis or the demise of the Soviet Union. So it's not that moderators have shown that they're particularly good about this.
2000 never teed up the terrorist threat on the Cole. The first terrorist attack. We had our first terrorist attack during that election and it wasn't teed up. Well that's a moderator failure. So that second model says, "You actually have a right to advance your strongest case at some point and let it be attacked. And to advance your strongest case against the other side. And let that exchange be heard." And if both have that, and the moderator then picks up the things that contra cast and null. We think we've got a better debate.
And it's not, "What's the most newsworthy?" What we're trying to do with that structure is get governance forecast. So the biggest indictment? Well they might be a bad President if that's correct.
"The biggest thing I want to do." Well you're going to try to do it. Let's find out if it's any good. Both get to do that. And then these are really important things that will face the country. You both are going to tell us what you're going to do about it. That's essentially the model under the block concept.
I would love to see a chess clock model in practice.
It's happened in France.
On the same scale?
Yeah, and it worked really well. So we've got one example, but most people can't speak French, so they don't know how to watch it. There was a chess clock model in France. We've been trying to get the consultants to pioneer some of our models at the state level when they're running gubernatorial, when they're running senatorial. In part because some of the stuff is always good to pilot before you move it to a Presidential election, although we think the status quo is so bad that we don't think this could be any worse.
We know what problems we're trying to solve. On the chess clock model, you're trying to solve the gaming that comes with you get a question, I get a rebuttal, you get a surrebuttal, because you are then going to take the end of your surrebuttal to engage in a gratuitous attack that I will have to respond to when I get my next question and it makes learning hard. So the game playing is what we're trying to get rid of. We're trying to get rid of the fact that the candidates will just railroad through and take extra time, which isn't fair either and moderators have failed to shut that down. And you can't really shut off the microphone although I think it would be a good idea at some point. It's hard because what if a person is right in the middle of an idea? You're going to look like you're politically biased against them.
So then they're going to coach candidates to look like they're victims. I mean the idea behind the chess clock, that does shut your mic off –
But it does it on its own.
It's not somebody's hand.
Yeah. I mean we've got to prevent people from thinking that the process is unfair even as we make sure it isn't fair. So sometimes it can look unfair when no, that's just structural. You just built the crazy in. So I'd like to see these things tried at some level other than the Presidency.
The problems we're trying to solve in Presidential debates are real. They are real.
And this game playing, I mean you put these consultants who are the best on both sides in the room and they all coach their people to do exactly the same things.
And I'm the academic. My job is to say, "But wait a minute. The public can't learn what it needs to learn if you play that game." But they have to play that game because that disadvantages their opponent. So you want to change the structure so they can't play the game, and so that their opponent can't play it against them.
Why do you do it to your opponent? Because your opponent can do it to you. You don't want only one side to be able to do it. So some of these things you look at from a learning standpoint and say, "That makes it harder to learn. Okay how are we going to fix it?"
I'm really pleased with the structural moves in this debate commission report because they start out by saying, "That doesn't work." Now what would work that we could get the candidates to buy into because if they don't buy into it, they're not going to debate. And we actually thought that most of these reforms benefited the candidates substantially enough that if the model were put up, they would accept the model. And this was in the view of the people who were from the debate process. They coached on both sides for all these years.
Every time somebody put up an idea, we would say, "Would the candidates accept that?" And somebody, "Oh, the candidate's disadvantaged if the candidate doesn't. Because here's how my candidate gets hurt when that bad thing happens. And here's how I hurt the other candidate." So we asked everybody to come to this thinking from the perspective of the electorate. And we got the commission to formulate most of the recommendations before they started signing on to candidates because sometimes you can say, "Well my candidate, that person would be advantaged by this." And, "My candidate would not." As opposed to let's just forget that. Let's just say, "How do we get maximum time between campaigning and governance." That was the objective.
I was astonished to be in closed session with these very smart people to listen to the extent to which they would really like the debates to be good for democracy. As opposed to trying to get them game for their candidates. They think on average they've got the better candidate.
And they would do better with this better model.
Yeah. But because they're traps for the candidates regardless of side in the current system. And they're gamed as a result. And trying to get beyond that. I mean the second big goal is you want more people to get more access to more content.
The challenge in our system is the system rewards short-term thinking. It doesn't reward the person who says, "We're going to do this now because the cost of not doing it now is greater if we delay. Or the cost of doing it later means that we're going to deal with a far more difficult problem or we won't be able to deal with it as well and we're going to have these downsides to dealing with it."
The person who says that doesn't get elected in our current system and the question is how do we create a structure that elects that person because we're thinking about children and grandchildren. And successive generations and the well-being of the planet. The largest proportion of the electorate that votes at the highest percent isn't gonna be alive to experience it.
There aren't many people that don't have any successors. So there has to be a way in this process to get that kind of engagement. It doesn't come in the short-term in the debates, because they will all say, "Free lunch." They do. Every time Jim Lehrer asked the question, "How are you going to pay for it? Where is the trade-off?" They basically answered, my translation, "Free lunch."
In this next set of exchanges, if you conventionalized it, offered a kind of post-debate debate, you'd be able to push those issues. And just simply say, "Name the three things that you're gonna trade-off." And then if somebody doesn't, you just say, "Now look, this is really important to this person." Now they've promised here and here and here. The trade-offs are there.
I'd like to see, if we were a really mature system, a candidate who stood up and said, "Look, I'm going to increase taxes. I'm going to make cuts here and entitlement to those of you who are okay and and and, because my priority is I'm going to build the infrastructure so the water is clean and safe. The roads are clean and safe. The bridges are not going to fall down. We are reducing the amount of carbon and we're putting these abatements in because because because." That candidate could get elected.
I think you're starting to see some of that with young Congress members, right? Like an AOC?
She's not telling us how to pay for it. She wins my debate, and then she's got to go into the accountability structure.
I can tell you what the trade-offs can be. It's can you be reelected if you say, people like me who do not need Social Security are going to be phased out of it. People have been counting on this process, you say, "Look if you make over this amount, we are going to ask you to not take your Social Security. In fact, we're going to take it away from you. You plan for it for the next two, three years and then we're going to take it away because you've got enough money to make it."
And that money is going to go over here because these kids have to get college debt for. I work in a university. We don't need to have the salary levels where we're at in universities. If we dropped upper administration salary levels, yeah maybe some people would go to business, but probably you have a whole lot of qualified people left. We've got to start cutting the cost of college. And the solution is not going to be government comes in and subsidizes that structure if that structure doesn't dramatically rein in its costs. We've increased above the rate of inflation for way too long. It's unacceptable. It's irresponsible for my sector of the economy to work that way because it's killing off the people who are the future of the country and we can't do that. Somebody's just got to throttle these things back in the name of protecting the next generations.
And when AOC starts telling me how we're going to do that, I will be much more impressed by her. Right now, I love her aspirations, but somebody's got to pay for them. And I think the climate is a crisis. I mean we could say, "What are the things we have to worry about right now?" We have to. But also have to worry about college debt. We have to worry about increasing the likelihood that everybody has access to higher quality healthcare-
I mean we're taking human costs that are simply embarrassing and the value we're clawing out of people's lives is morally corrupt.
The idea that we do not have the same infant mortality rates is something that we oughta wake up in the morning and just be profoundly ashamed of. We've now got declining rates of longevity. You're saying my kids won't live as long as I did? What's wrong with this picture? So all of that is going to cost. And money's going to come from some place, or we're going to squeeze out other things. And somebody needs to sit down and say, "Here's how." Clinton should have gotten Simpson-Bowles through in '98. Instead, the Lewinsky scandal basically derailed the last two years of a presidency that could have taken on the entitlement problem at which point, I would not be getting Social Security.
And Medicare. You know, I'd be paying that on my own because I can afford to. But you know the kids coming out this year in college wouldn't be carrying the kind of burden they're carrying either. And we have more people covered with insurance than they did before. So I'm waiting for somebody to have the courage to just smack the public into awareness. And that means a whole lot of taxation for people in my income bracket. And people in my income bracket have to say, "Fine."
Yeah. It's going to be the group of people saying, "Okay." I mean it's the Warren Buffets. And when Warren Buffet says that, people say, "Good, so you pay the extra money that I'm not willing to."
And the other piece that we have to get right, we've now got a threat around the world that we haven't had before. Because you've got nuclear capacities in the hands of people who are not stable. So your generation, the generation coming behind you is going to start living the '50s again. When kids actually believed they could be blown up at night because it's plausible now.
Which means some of the expenditures that we could think that we could cut back on, some of the forms of military expenditures, that may not be the place the cuts are going to be able to happen. If what you're trying to do is to stand down some of these other activities. Because the counter capacities that are needed to make sure that the missile doesn't reach the United States are going to be expensive. It's time for somebody with real courage to stand up and our structures need to accommodate a discourse of what's gonna happen. So the debate commission report's a little piece. It's not the whole piece.
And demand it to happen more, right? Not only provide space that allows this to work, but to say, "This is what we expect of our leaders. And this is what we expect of our citizens."
We need to produce the leaders from the generations that are affected who will tell the truth.
And basically, force the people who have the income to take a reduced standard of living because they're already fine. In order to pay back into the system. But that's a hard message.
And older people vote at a disproportionate level. And everybody's functionally selfish. This is true.
Right. Thank you.
I admire what you're trying to do, good luck.
Thanks very much.