Excerpted and transcribed from The Takeaway. Click on the audio player above to hear the original interview.
The five remaining Republican candidates will debate tonight in Houston. The debates have draw big ratings wins for news organizations—13.5 million people watched the last GOP debate on CBS two weeks ago.
For the news networks, the debates have become sporting events, with a national anthem, a highly produced introduction with photos and soundbites from the candidates, and then there's the post debate analysis where pundits pick the winners and losers.
It may be great television for political junkies, but what do people learn from these debates? Is it even possible to learn about a candidates policies in a 60 second statement and a 30 second rebuttal?
Leave it to television to take something that’s supposed to help us understand things better, like a political debate, and make it all an incomprehensible spectacle. Rubio scores on intensity and Hillary Clinton on assertiveness. But where did this format for televised political combat come from?
Quiz Bowl, the popular Sunday afternoon TV show from the 1950’s, sponsored by General Electric, where intelligent college students competed, with a TV host asking -- get this -- really hard questions. In this case, the host is Allen Ludden. The highly mutated version of the TV host questioner quiz bowl model is what they call today’s presidential debates, except the questions aren’t terribly hard, the candidates don’t really have to answer them, and this year, the candidates have spent much of their time insulting each other or trying to generate pithy sound bites. Is there an alternative to this schoolyard brawl between the ids and superegos of politics? Our next two guests really want to help.
Philanthropist Robert Rosenkranz is the founder and chairman of the public radio and digital livestream debate series Intelligence Squared U.S., and John Donvan is Intelligence Squared’s skilled moderator.
The mission, Rosenkranz says, is to get away from the whole quiz bowl entertainment model and get serious about real debate, and he says he’s getting treated seriously.
Well, the hope is to raise the level of discourse where it counts most, which is in the election for the presidency. And the presidential debates, in our view, are the single biggest lever we can pull to raise that level of discourse.
Now, what would you say, John, is the reveal that the debates give us now in their entertaining, chaotic, whatever you want to say, form -- and how would you improve it?
Well, what it shows best at the moment is how good candidates are at memorizing answers to questions that they decide and never intend really to answer.
Debate preparation is a cramming exercise in which the debate teams have to sort of figure out and game out what questions they may be asked by a moderator who, essentially, in most cases, is trying to cash them out, and they operate as, in a sense, dueling job interviews, or dueling press conferences. There really isn’t an engagement between the candidates on the merits of the ideas themselves. And I think that’s what people are missing, and as a result of that, you don’t really get to know truly what a candidate thinks. And we think that the Intelligence Squared format, by basing itself on the Oxford style format, in which there is one proposition, you argue for and against, puts you in a world where you really have to see the candidates not only think on their feet, but work with ideas, and see those ideas working with and against one another.
Well, I’d certainly love to get away from this quiz-bowl-without-the-intelligence part that we’ve got now with the questions that aren’t intelligent, and the answers that have nothing to do with the questions.
How can you enforce that the candidates would actually go along with something like this on any level, Robert?
Well, the Presidential Debate Commission is an independent body that’s set up by both political parties, and has been the authority that set the format of these debates. It’s been around for 30 years or more. And presidential debates at this point are so well-established in the system that I believe that the Presidential Debate Commission does have the power to set a format, and the parties will just have to fall in line, whether they like it or not.
It seems as though the proposition -- and I use the terminology deliberately -- from the Oxford debate style, John Donvan, is in this case, “I should be the president,” you know, as opposed to, “What’s the best alternative for health care?” or “How should we handle environmental policy?” How do you get candidates off the proposition of, “I should be in the White House?”
Well, you get them to agree going in that we’re going to do a debate in which there actually is one proposition, for example, let’s make it very broad: “Government is part of the problem,” or “Government is part of the solution.” You get the candidates to agree that that’s the one topic we’re going to argue. You make sure that they actually disagree on whatever that proposition is, and you tell them, “We’re going to spend 90 minutes exploring that issue, and you need to come in, Mr. or Madam Candidate, with a position on that proposition. You’re going to get seven minutes, ten minutes, to make your arguments. Your opponent’s going to then get seven minutes or ten minutes to make his or her argument. And then we’re going to explore it with a series of questions and challenges that stick to that one issue,” which can be -- after that, the conversation can sort of be quite broad. But it still needs to come back to that one motion. But to answer your question, how do you get them to stop making the proposition, “I should be president and that other guy should not” -- you get them to sign up ahead of time for that issue, and then as a moderator, I would have to keep them on that particular point.
I’m wondering if your style of debate would reveal the shortcomings of someone like Donald Trump, who answers a lot of questions with, “I would just figure it out,” or would help him to do what he does.
Frankly, I think Donald Trump is great at reality television, and the current format helps Donald Trump. I think the format that we’re suggesting, where you have to stick to a topic, and explore it in depth, and really respond in a substantive way to somebody on the other side with a different viewpoint would be a very tough format for Donald Trump.
John, what does it mean that 46% of your audience has claimed that they’re convinced, that they may change their mind, at least that’s the --
Change their mind -- we think that’s a remarkable thing.
That shows that when -- by definition, a debate has two sides. So you have a captive audience that, no matter what happens, unless they put their fingers in their ears selectively, they’re actually being exposed to another side arguing a point of view from the one that they came in with. And the fact that they are forced to listen, and they do listen, and then they listen to the extent that they actually are persuaded to change their minds, to us is a huge -- a huge indicator of the value of this thing as a way to -- as Bob said -- raise the level of public discourse, and we think probably improve the quality of politics.
Because what the audience ends up demanding of the debaters after they’ve been listening for a while is, you can make your assertion, but what’s your evidence? Give us your evidence. And that’s what our format forces the debaters to do, is to present their evidence, and present their logic, and make it coherent, and make their argument have legs.
So what you see now in the presidential debates are simply assertions. They’re cans, they’re made to sound pretty, they tend to be repetitive, but they’re talking points.
Can you bump audiences off of this idea of, “I go to cheer for my candidate and watch them do well,” as opposed to be convinced, and change their mind, and move from perhaps one candidate to another? And what does the political establishment think of your suggestions?
Well, I feel absolutely that there’s a very large chunk of the American electorate that is independent, that is skeptical of candidates from both parties, and is willing to change their mind, is willing to be open-minded. So yes, I think this is a particularly -- I mean, all we hear from in primaries is the “base,” and the people who are ideologically committed, but the vast majority of this country, I think, is somewhere in the middle, and quite open to persuasion.
Philanthropist Robert Rosenkranz is the founder and chairman of the public radio and digital livestream debate series Intelligence Squared U.S., and John Donvan is the skilled moderator of Intelligence Squared.