Our Pathetic Debate Format

Presidential debates don’t much resemble actual debates, in that they are generally moderated by questioners who have an exaggerated sense of their importance in these events and tend to limit the extent of any actual back-and-forth between the candidates. Insofar as Jim Lehrer did not so much direct the discussion as bring up general areas for the candidates to address, it was a small step in the right direction. It would be even better to allow some time for the candidates to ask each other questions. We don’t need Lincoln-Douglas, but an actual debate would be nice.

The current debate format also artificially separates campaign issues into “foreign” and “domestic.” This makes no sense. As Ezra Klein notes, this “distinction is ridiculous.” Many issues don’t fit neatly into one box or the other, and the candidates should have greater ability to identify those issues they want to stress. It can be useful for a moderator to bring up an issue that might otherwise go unaddressed — say, climate change — but it would still be better for the candidates to steer the discussion and have a real back-and-forth that isn’t constrained by an artificial format or subject-matter limitation.