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Up for debate: Are political debates really debates?

October 13, 2018

Alert reader and sometime letter writer Bill Johns wrote recently to question a term used regularly during campaign season. Not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, taxes or budgets.

Debate.

After watching last Monday’s Washington Debate Coalition matchup between U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and her Republican opponent Susan Hutchison, and reading the newspaper’s coverage, Johns said he thought the story was accurate, but “why do they call it a debate when it is an interview?”

This question, or something similar, comes up frequently from fans of competitive “forensic” debates one sees in high school or college competitions or those who long for the halcyon days of true political rhetoric mastery of the original Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The latter, by the way, would likely bore the bejesus out of 99 percent of Americans, with a format consisting of 60 minutes of exposition on a single topic from Candidate 1, followed by 90 minutes of rebuttal from Candidate 2, and 30 minutes of re-rebuttal from Candidate 1. What passed for a night of good entertainment in 1858 would likely have an audience in 2018 using up the batteries of their smartphones with constant tweets that featured #BORING!

It’s important to point out to some younger colleagues that I did not actually cover the original Lincoln-Douglas debates, but learned about them in American history class in high school. It’s also a bit confusing because school debates are sometimes called Lincoln-Douglas debates, even though the modern format is much different.

Current political debates are nothing like either. They are a cross between an interview as Johns suggests and a joint press conference with two people who disagree on most things. Most important, they are structured for television. That’s been the case since 1960 when a pale and sweaty Richard Nixon lost to a tanned and relaxed John Kennedy in the public arena, even though most people who paid attention only to what was said gave Nixon the edge.

How long each candidate gets to answer a question, to rebut the other’s answer and possibly to rebut the rebuttal, as well as who gets to ask the questions, are part of what’s known as the format. So is whether candidates stand at a podium, sit around a table or walk around the stage with microphone in hand.

Campaign managers argue for a format that plays to their candidate’s strengths or the opponent’s weaknesses. If their candidate is good with one-liners or can rattle off facts and figures, they push for less time, which means more questions; if a candidate likes to spin folksy anecdotes, they may want more time, and fewer questions. While presidential debates are often an hour and a half, the time television is willing to devote to other debates declines with the level of the office.

All of this is heavily negotiated before the debate starts, but once on stage candidates tend to ignore the time limits and complain about the constraints that their campaigns have negotiated, asserting that the public would be better served by a longer debate with more complete answers on more topics. Challengers are also likely to bemoan the number of debates, unless they are ahead in the polls, in which case the incumbent may close out with a challenge for additional matchups in other venues.

Because of this, political debates have evolved into an American form of Kabuki theater, where true aficionados watch for specific details to determine who won or lost, undecided voters look for something to help make up their minds and few committed voters change their support from one candidate to another based on a strong argument on a particular issue.

U.S. Senate Debate Saturday

All of this leads us to the second Washington Debate Coalition meeting between Hutchison and Cantwell, scheduled for next Saturday in Spokane. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the moderators for this debate, so this may be viewed as a shameless plug.)

The format, known as town-hall style, is a bit different, because the initial questions will be culled from queries sent in by voters around the state, and Spokane-area journalists will ask follow-ups on the same topic after each candidate gets her initial one-minute response. The coalition is still taking questions, so if you’ve got a good one, you can submit it by clicking here.

People who submit questions that are selected will have a chance to ask them at the debate, if they able to attend. It starts at 3 p.m. at Spokane Community College’s Lair Student Center. It’s free, but tickets are required and can be requested here.

Like many debates, this one was a result of some jockeying. Originally scheduled for later in the month at Gonzaga University, the time and location was changed after negotiations with the campaigns, coalition partners and sponsors to a time closer to the mailing of ballots. It will be televised live on KSKN Channel 22 and on TVW.org

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