Guest Opinions

Make changes so presidential debates deliver for voters

Lindy High
Lindy High

Television gives us some interesting questions to ponder.

Will our great-great-grandchildren still be watching “Law and Order” episodes far into the future?

Is Ryan Lochte going to make the finals of “Dancing with the Stars”?

If Donald Trump is alone in the forest and whispers a word, will CNN still cover it as breaking news?

The answer to that last question is a resounding “yes,” which is why it was startling when Trump complained about unfair news coverage. It’s thanks to the media and its reporting of his every utterance that he rose to the top among GOP presidential hopefuls, and did it without spending on advertising.

But Monday, when the first of the presidential candidate debates is televised, we’ll be able to see for ourselves how The Donald and Hillary Clinton duke it out on a shared stage, each getting about the same amount of air time.

Of course, these aren’t really debates in the traditional sense. Rather, they’re Q & A free-for-alls, often with gotcha questions and usually with agreed-upon ground rules ignored.

Worse is the expectation that in 90 seconds — or even many minutes — candidates can provide insight into exactly what they want to do to grow the nation’s economy, improve its foreign relations, end its wars, reform immigration policies, work with Congress, and so on.

These are broad and complex issues — topics for books and studies — and quickie answers don’t give voters meaningful information. Responses must be black or white, not the grays that so often color the nation’s options. The main beneficiaries are the pundits who analyze afterward, almost always taking more time than the “debates” themselves.

A few things would make the debates more meaningful and a lot more interesting:

▪ Change the format to permit longer answers. Sure, it’s always possible a candidate will take a patty-cake question and drone on just to fill time and avoid anything tougher. But even that is preferable to a sound-bite answer that doesn’t begin to plumb the depths that most of these issues deserve and most voters want to hear.

▪ Let moderators continue with follow-up until the answer is complete. Right now questions come like tennis balls, bouncing here and there from topic to topic. Better to fully explore a line of questioning before moving on.

▪ Insist on specificity from the candidates. For example, “Mr. Trump, we’re going to ask this question over and over until you tell us exactly how you will make Mexico pay for that wall. And saying ‘Believe me’ is not the answer we’re looking for.”

▪ National security would be an exception to the specificity rule: no sense telling our enemies what we plan to do. Clinton’s pledge not to use ground troops in Iraq or Syria was a gaffe, roughly akin to George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: no new taxes” promise. You never know what the future holds.

▪ Beef up fact-checking on candidates’ pronouncements. Best would be if the crawl line on the bottom of the screen could tell us which statements are true, which are white lies, which are real whoppers. Barring that, each “debate” should be followed by a fact-check program with as much well-sourced information as possible about the accuracy or inaccuracy of candidates’ comments.

▪ Give the emcee a kill switch to cut off those microphones. At some point, enough is enough.

Electing a U.S. president is a big decision, and like all big decisions, it calls for good research. With a few changes, the debates could be an important part of that research.

Lindy High, of Boise, is a retired Idaho state employee who worked for elected officials of both parties.

All debates are 90 minutes long and will take place from 7-8:30 p.m. (MST). The debates will be broadcast live on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, C-SPAN and all cable news channels. For more information, go to the Commission on Presidential Debates