The Presidential Debates are Broken

Tonight is the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. I’m not sure if I want to watch. Having watched the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate I came away with the conclusion that debates are broken.

  • “Facts” are tossed around by both candidates and then challenged and defended with no regard for what’s factual. Even when multiple sites and news organizations fact check the candidates, those misleading, deceptive or blatantly false claims still come up. Both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin used “facts” in the VP debate that had already been fact-checked and swatted down after the presidential debate.
  • The follow-up questions are limited so there’s no actual resolution for any issue. A candidate can make an outrageous claim and it just sits there unchallenged. This happened multiple times in both debates.
  • Finally, the underlying issues that inform policies are never actually debated. For example, we go round and round on who’s tax policy does what (here’s a good breakdown of their respective tax policies), but we never get to the issues behind the opposing policies: What will improve the economy more, giving more money to the middle class or more money to the wealthy? That’s the real debate, with real historical examples (Reagan vs. Clinton), but we never actually get there.


I think the debate rules need to be re-written. The moderator should have unlimited power to question the candidates and make them explain their position. The moderator should be backed up by a team of fact checkers who have the power to throw a flag on the play, pause the debate and fact-check a statement. This would have been ideal when Biden and Palin were sparring over what a general in Afghanistan actually said. Instead of resolving the issue the moderator just let them bicker back and forth with no factual resolution.

What we have currently is nationally televised stump speeches.

But I suppose none of this will change until the candidates actually care about facts. When a candidate is fact-checked and turns out to be wrong, I expect the candidates to immediately own up to it, admit their fault and correct themselves. In some cases the correct facts don’t even have an impact on the weight of an argument (for example, both Biden and Obama gave an incorrect figure for the Iraqi surplus, $80 billion when $30 billion was correct, or perhaps $50-60 billion by the end of the year—the numbers don’t change their point that Iraq has money and can pay for stuff themselves), but using those incorrect facts makes it appear a candidate is either clueless or trying to mislead. Instead candidates seem to be too afraid of being wrong. You’re never going to be right all the time, but how you handle being wrong shows a lot more character.

This is all the more important this week as the campaign is going dirty.

3 thoughts on “The Presidential Debates are Broken”

  1. 30 minutes into this second presidential debate, I’m so disgusted I can’t watch any more.

    Both candidates are shameless in their refusal to give straight answers and instead either pound on sound bites they’ve been using for months or attack the other guy.

    Both also are utterly arrogant in their disregard for the rules they’d agreed upon. I think the commission ought to wire in an automatic mic cutoff in addition to lights to enforce time limits.

  2. I was thinking of the same thing regarding cutting them off.. if they don’t stop before the time, they’ll look like a fool. Gives them at least some incentive.

    I thought the winners were:

    Economy/Bailout: Obama
    Taxes: McCain
    Healthcare: Obama
    Foreign Policy (all of it): McCain
    Eloquence/Straight forwardness: Obama
    Character & Humility: McCain
    Following the rules: Neither

  3. “When a candidate is fact-checked and turns out to be wrong, I expect the candidates to immediately own up to it, admit their fault and correct themselves” – Kevin

    Thanks, man. I was feeling a bit depressed this morning, and I needed a good laugh. Whoo!

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