I watched the presidential debate Tuesday night and I have to ask: Where did the Gallup folks find 80 undecided voters in Nashville? I didn’t know there were 80 left in the whole United States.
The debate has been deconstructed and examined by political writers a lot savvier than I am, so my goal here isn’t to discuss the content. By this point in the campaign, I’m not sure anyone really watches the debates to learn more about the candidates with the expectation that they might change their minds. Rather, it’s more like a football game: We are watching as partisan fans and rooting for our candidate with the sort of passion we bring to a Patriots or Giants game. We may even be rooting more fervently because we know the outcome of this contest actually affects our lives in meaningful ways.
In any case, I have been in front of the television for all of the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates this autumn, and here are seven small suggestions for rules for future debates that might give voters a better sense of the candidates.
1) Bring in the Academy Awards orchestra. Both candidates tended to ignore their two-minute limits Tuesday night, which drove moderator Tom Brokaw crazy. But Brokaw was at a disadvantage: All he had to rein in the two senators was a horizontal traffic light. Imagine if instead of that traffic light, the Academy Awards orchestra had started to play the moment two minutes were up, as if we were in Hollywood and an acceptance speech was starting to bore Jack Nicholson.
2) You have to answer the questions. You lose points in a high school debate if you announce, “I may not answer the questions …” Wrong. The whole reason you’re there is to answer the questions.
3) No numbers. These days the numbers are either so big they are incomprehensible (700 billion) or so obviously manipulated that they are meaningless.
4) No winking. When candidates wink at me, I get the creeps.
5) We need more Zen-like questions such as the final one asked Tuesday night: “What don’t you know, and how will you learn it?” Other examples I would like to see in a debate of this importance? “Just how high is the sky? OK, really?” “Can a person disappear into thick air?” “No one likes a glass ceiling. How do you feel about glass floors?”
6) Focus for a few moments on people who don’t vote. Here are two words we haven’t heard side by side in a single debate: Homeless. Children. Why? Because homeless children don’t vote. But on any given night in the United States, there are roughly 200,000 of them out there — and well more than a million different kids in the course of a year. (Yes, those are numbers, but I’m not in the midst of a debate. And you can check them on the Web in about a minute.)
7) Subtract points for incoherent babble. Our next president and vice president don’t have to be as articulate as Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton — though it would be nice if they were after the last eight years in which the White House has been mired in the Love Canal of Verbal Gibberish. These are our principal representatives on the world’s stage, and it isn’t asking a lot to expect complete sentences. As editorialists in the United Kingdom’s Guardian observed, American political discourse has sunk so low that when a candidate speaks “in more-or-less full sentences,” people applaud the performance.
This Wednesday night we have one last chance to raise the bar. The final presidential debate will take place at Hofstra University and I expect that I will be planted on my couch watching it on television. After all, even without the Academy Awards orchestra, it is absolutely riveting theater.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 12, 2008.)