There will be up to 20 candidates spread over two nights. There will be boisterous live audiences. There will be dramatic music, flashy sets and high-profile TV news anchors.
But there will not be a debate. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a less suitable format for introducing American voters to presidential contenders than the televised spectacles that begin in a few weeks.
The modern era of presidential debates started 60 years ago with John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The format was simple, even stark. Journalists chosen for their expertise — not their celebrity — pressed tough questions and even tougher follow-ups on candidates who were given ample time to answer, rebut and, yes, debate. The Kennedy-Nixon debates began with a statement from each candidate that ran eight minutes.
In 2019, eight minutes is probably the total speaking time all but the top candidates will get in each two-hour debate — far less on-camera time than the debate moderators. Sadly, the primary debates have evolved into a kind of “battle of the political stars.”
To be clear, this is not just the fault of news networks, though I and my colleagues who have produced these events must certainly share the blame. In helping to create at least 10 presidential forums and debates since 2003, I saw them become less and less useful, in no small part because we let production overtake content, and we let control move steadily into the hands of political operators.
As recently as 2012, it was television news divisions that decided the where, when and how of primary debates. We looked for dates with potential for high viewership, we competed fiercely to secure the participation of top candidates, and we imposed our own standards for participation. The political parties and leading campaigns tried sporadically to assert some control over the process, but these efforts mostly failed.
Now, it is the DNC (like the RNC in 2016) that is largely dictating everything, choosing the locations, the media partners, the formats and the qualifying standards. Candidates who stray outside the party-sanctioned schedule of events risk penalties in the form of lost delegates at the nominating convention.
More than anything else, time and flexibility is what matters in a debate: time for effective follow-up and rebuttal, and flexibility that allows a savvy moderator to let a moment play out — to allow candidates to engage with each other in unexpected ways.
The DNC’s rules for the 2020 primary debates — with a huge field of candidates arranged largely at random over two nights — are unlikely to produce any revealing moments. What a missed opportunity it is, for example, to have Joe Biden appear on a different night than Elizabeth Warren, or to have Marianne Williamson share the stage with Biden rather than Cory Booker.
Is there a better way? Part of the answer has been on display already this season: the growing schedule of one-on-one events with leading candidates. The settings are intimate, not grandiose. The audience is not there to cheer and jeer, but to provide thoughtful and even personal questions.
The stand-out event of this type must be credited to Fox News and its town hall with Pete Buttigieg. This was a departure from the frequent Fox News and MSNBC “preaching to the choir” mode; Chris Wallace — an experienced, fair journalist — posed challenging questions and gave the candidate ample time to explain his ideas to an inherently skeptical audience.
So how does this translate to the debate stage?
We could decide that four, or six, is the maximum number of candidates on stage. We could choose moderators for their deep knowledge rather than their place in a network’s promotional pecking order. We could give those moderators wide latitude — rather than imposing unenforceable rules such as 60- and 90-second answers or mandatory rebuttals when a candidate’s name is spoken. We could drop the show biz elements that make the atmosphere raucous rather than reasoned. We could insist that journalists, not campaign organizations, make the decisions, based on fair and transparent criteria.
It’s time for a reset in the primary debate process.
It was vice-presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale who famously stood on a debate stage in 1992 and asked “Who am I? Why am I here?”
The network news divisions and their journalists would do well to ask themselves the same question as they launch this cycle of primary “debates”.
Mark Lukasiewicz is Dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, and former Senior Vice President of NBC New Specials. He was executive producer of 10 nationally televised primary debates and forums between 2003 and 2016.