Tonight marks the third debate of the 2012 Presidential election. We have watched this game twice already. But only yesterday did we learn the rules. This is a failure of transparency: how do you know who’s playing fair when you don’t know how the game is played?
Time magazine’s Mark Halperin published the debate rules formally agreed upon by both the Obama and Romney campaigns. The 21-page document is called a “Memorandum of Understanding.” These memos have been a part of presidential debates for longer than I have been alive. In some years, however, they are not released to the public. This one talks about debate dates, times, locations, stage requirements, and time allocated to each speaker– standard stuff, for the most part. It gets interesting, however, when it prohibits the moderator from asking follow-up questions, and specifies that each candidate can only stand in a designated area onstage.
Some say that these rules are ridiculous. Gawker went so far as to call both of the candidates ‘sniveling cowards– an interesting choice, given that neither one of them was present while the debate rules were being decided (the memo is written and signed by campaign representatives, not the candidates themselves). Others watched the laughter and interruptions of the Vice Presidential debate and would prefer the remaining debates to be more structured. This seems to be the trend: Town hall questions have gone from no pre-screening and anyone could ask anything (twenty years ago) to all questions screened and selected by the moderator (today).
This conversation we are having about debate rules is only part of the conversation that we, as an electorate, should be having about how we can use the media to get the maximum amount of truth out of each candidate.
The debate stipulation that speaks most clearly on this is the ban on bringing pre-written notes to the podium. The idea is to hear the candidates in their purest form, thinking on their feet, without anyone else’s words written out in front of them. People tune into debates because they strip away the spokespeople, the advertisements, the campaign slogans, and leave the candidates with nothing but their minds (and excessive amounts of hair gel) with which to impress us. It is a little silly in that these debates consist of two people talking about spending while ignoring the 535 other spenders in Congress. Still, these debates have value because they are the simplest and purest form of politics that most voters get to see.
It would be nice, then, if any of the moderators agreed to the rules in the memo, but not a single one of them did. These moderators are the people who are supposed to enforce the rules, and it turns out that they didn’t agree to them. It should be no surprise, then, that we have seen a breakdown in decorum– interruptions, running over time limits, Biden’s awkward cackle, and the like. Obviously, some have been worse offenders than others. We are seeing some candidates break the rules because they know they can get away with it. Anyone who breaks the rules because he can is not the kind of person I trust to run the country.
The American people must hold our candidates and our journalists to fair and ethical standards. This means calling out rule breakers in real time. Even before that, it means getting people on board and agreeing to play by the rules. If a moderator won’t play by the rules, find a new moderator. Could you imagine if, for any other game, the refs threw the rule book out the window and just did what they wanted? If you saw what happened to the NFL a few weeks ago; you know just how much of a disaster this can be.
Picture a spectrum on which one end, there are prescribed rules for everything in a debate. That end of the spectrum would be scripted and boring; we wouldn’t learn anything new. On the other end of the spectrum, there are no rules at all. This type of setup is called “The Hunger Games.” It would be terrifying (and besides, we already know that Paul Ryan would win). So we’ve got two sides– the Rehearsed and Choreographed Democracy Spectacular and the state of nature physical battle in which someone would inevitably get stabbed with a flag pin. Anything between those two extremes is what we could call a debate. And as long as we have a true debate, in which the rules are fair and followed by all involved parties, American voters ought to keep tuning in.