Support the news

A Viewer’s Guide To Debates

A confession: I love political debates.

My love affair with this relatively new American institution started in 1988 when I was approached by the Commission on Presidential Debates to be executive producer for what was then a nugget of an idea. Organizers wanted to stage three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in the weeks prior to the election.

With the chairmen of the two major parties, Democrat Paul Kirk and Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, spearheading the plan, I was intrigued. So I signed on and then returned in the same role four years later. In the years since, I have advised or produced a number of other political debates.

Up until 1988, debate sponsorship was subject to a quadrennial tug of war between the parties. It usually produced one or two debates that satisfied no one, and left the public interest on the cutting room floor. It was back in the day when Kirk and Fahrenkopf, otherwise hard charging partisans, could cooperate on a project that was in the interest of both the voters and the candidates. Hard to believe it has survived the toxic political trench warfare of the last 25 years.

The author, pictured on the right, was the former executive producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates. In this photo, he talks with panelists before the 1992 vice presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan. (AP File Photo)
The author, pictured on the right, was the former executive producer for the Commission on Presidential Debates. In this photo, he talks with panelists before the 1992 vice presidential debate in East Lansing, Michigan. (AP File Photo)

So for the next two presidential debates, and the vice presidential debate, here is a viewer’s guide:

Manner Of Delivery
Will the candidates be talking to you at home, to one another, or even to the audience in the hall? Delivery matters because we expect candidates not only to know the answer to the question — but also to deliver the answer in an accessible way. Romney showed us in the first debate he can walk that fine line.

Mutual Courtesy
The candidates for the nation's highest office have to look and sound dignified — indeed, presidential. Voters expect nothing less. No “Crossfire” type exchanges, please. Though we expect these encounters to be civilized – they certainly don’t radiate much warmth. The candidates are essentially strangers who have spent the better part of the last year mounting attacks on one another — some very personal. Their body language at the beginning, as they address each other, and after the debate is crucial.

The candidates for the nation's highest office have to look and sound dignified — indeed, presidential. Voters expect nothing less. No “Crossfire” type exchanges, please.

For most voters, what can be seen on television is the campaign. And in this last month, what we'll see is paid ads (which by now have largely lost whatever impact they might have had because we've seen so many) and debates. In the latter, more important, context, we see the candidates under the most pressure they have ever faced, handling questions that take them out of the narrow cocoon of their canned talking points and show us whether they can take the heat that comes with higher office.


This program aired on October 11, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news