Just about every first-year debate student has heard the maxim that “the one who frames the debate, wins the debate.” Should this maxim be true, then what is the impact of how modern presidential debates are currently structured? What type of leader do these formats produce? How informed do Americans feel given the current debate format?
For eons, public debates tended to be long format orations that allowed each combatant ample time to lay out their arguments, assert facts and draw conclusions. Although the Greeks and Romans offer a rich history of such affairs, possibly the most famous of these for the United States was the 1858 Lincoln–Douglas debates.
Each one of the seven Lincoln–Douglas contests lasted three hours, and they were held in various congressional districts throughout Illinois. Lincoln and Douglas took turns going first with 60 minutes of uninterrupted arguments and opinions. Afterward, the other would speak unbroken for 90 minutes. Following these opening salvos, they would alternate in shorter segments to refute the other’s points of view.
As these debates evolved, Lincoln and Douglas learned the other’s perspective and used this to refine their arguments and refutations. Can you imagine how educated and informed voters must have become when allowed to listen, uninterrupted, to thoughtful and cogent arguments on such topics as westward expansion and slavery?
Since 1960, televised presidential debates have paved the road to looks, style, and soundbites trumping substance. Recent debates have augured new lows in terms of soundbites, bullying, and theatrics. Donald Trump has successfully “framed” each of his opponents with labels that ultimately defined them to many in the electorate. In addition, in 2016, Trump invited women who allegedly had affairs with Hillary Clinton’s husband to attend in the audience. One wonders what the framers of our great nation might think about such antics as well as their opinions of why the structure allows for such folly.
If framing the debate drives the outcome, the question naturally arises as to what a civilized, free, and democratic society is trying to accomplish? Should we feed our base desires to see public titans clash and bleed on live TV so we can have more fodder for Twitter rants? Do we want the most powerful leader in the world to be adept at the instantaneous intimidation and harassment required to win the current format? Or should we seek a different framework that would allow candidates to actually demonstrate their leadership skills and understanding of policy?
The world has radically changed since 1858 in innumerable ways. The transformation from an agrarian society to one based on services and technology has created a situation in which no woman or man can be completely knowledgeable of all the areas required to be effective. But the complexity of the environment is only part of the equation. The pace of change and advancement of the fundamental forces shaping society, from the rise of the internet to social media, must cause us to reconsider the leadership characteristics required.
Given the innumerable complexities of the world, the United States’ leadership position, and the rapid pace of change, the fundamental leadership skills required must be reexamined. We need a leader who is adept at seeking out knowledge from others, who is open to having their assumptions and beliefs challenged and who finds ways to create consensus from divergent forces that exist such as what we find in Congress and the United Nations.
The current approach and format of presidential debates may very well yield soundbites, but wouldn’t having an informed view on how potential president makes decisions be an important ingredient in forming a voting decision?
Maybe the 1858 debates could provide guidance for a suggested new approach: One approach could be to conduct several two- to three-hour sessions recorded simultaneously and broadcast to the American public as each network desired. Each candidate would be in a separate situation room with a team of four or five of their top advisers, including their presumptive choice for vice president.
Without any prior knowledge of the content, a situation packet or packets would be delivered to the room containing a challenge or crisis that the president and his team must address. The team would be given 90 minutes to debate and discuss the situation and options. They would have full access to the internet, other leaders, and scholars, just as they would in the White House.
All of the interactions would be broadcast to the American voters. The last 15 minutes of the session would culminate in the presidential candidate addressing the American public to summarize the situation and the approach to address it. There could also be a follow-up session in which the candidate refutes the other’s proposed approach and ideas.
The potential challenges given to the teams could include hot button domestic issues such as a COVID-19 outbreak response, selection of a Supreme Court justice, or a potential bill in Congress. The international crises might include a nation defaulting on their debt, a trade war, or a country illegally seizing control of another.
Whatever the topic, the American people would get a glimpse of how this person seeks to understand the facts of a difficult situation, invites input and criticism of various thoughts and ideas from others and how he or she engages and drives consensus. As a consequence, we would sacrifice the opportunity to see candidates shout insults and trade barbs with each other but these skills, although priceless as next day memes, are of little value when it comes to actually governing. We would also get several opportunities to see how this person would address, inform, and persuade the American public.
The whole idea would be to shift the current format from gladiatorial entertainment to something more akin to a situational job interview. Given that the COVID pandemic has completely disrupted the debate schedule and format, why not try something new? What would be the risks of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden assembling their best advisers to let the American voters get a glimpse of how they lead, interact with advisers, and solve complex issues?
When one considers the intellectual rigor, moral character, and leadership style of Abraham Lincoln, one must also consider his gentle manner and thoughtful approach. Can anyone imagine someone like him succeeding in our current formats? And isn’t that a shame, as couldn’t the United States of America and the world use a Lincoln right now?
Ron Lamb ’89 is the CEO of Daxko, a health and wellness software and payments company serving about 18,000 fitness facilities globally. He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Kristi, and their chilldren.