Small World: Resolving the debate riddle


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Many of you have probably read about the dustup following the last Republican presidential debate. The candidates and the Republican National Committee (RNC) were up in arms over the supposedly biased questioning from CNBC moderators; the Republicans threatened suspension of the scheduled February debate. Cooler heads to the rescue! I say.

Here follow a few ideas for reforming the debate process for both parties and restoring tranquility.

The first step is to have clearly in mind the purpose(s) of a debate: entertainment, education, truth seeking or all of the above, in that order.

If truth is the object, there is no better procedure than the traditional Salem witch trial method: Ask a question, get an answer and submerge the candidate under water. If he/she survives, accept that his/her answer is truthful. Unfortunately, we are coming up on wintry days and this method would not be acceptable. (Remember that candidate William Henry Harrison upon winning the presidency died from a bad cold a few weeks later.)

For the same fatal reason, the CNBC managers would rule out in advance debates in which issues are decided through dueling or jousting (whether or not in full armor). Even the well-supplied Republican Party could not stand the candidate attrition. And the NRA would strongly object to any rules regulating arms.

Moving right along, an alternative debate format might be to model the session on the quiz show Jeopardy. The moderator would state a proposition and the candidates, each equipped with a buzzer would press it and present his/her idea of the correct matching question. For example, Moderator: “What is, Make America great again?” Swift-fingered Dr. Carson buzzes, “Donald Trump’s program.” And so on. If, CNBC forbid, a candidate fails to answer the question or answers another question not asked, he would be penalized. The judges’ ruling would be final.

Who would be the judges? Well, all of the candidates have spoken admiringly of their parents, spouses or children. One such from each candidate could form a committee with final decision rights.

A wholly new method perhaps more entertaining than educational would involve candidates playing various roles. For example, all of the candidates save one would be asked to represent the eleven million illegal immigrants from foreign lands. One candidate would be asked to play the part of a new president who has promised to gather the aliens up and ship them back to their homes. The ensuing mess might be quite instructive. Or, the candidates could be asked to stand in for their hoped-for future constituents who would be told by the moderator how much more (or less) they would be obliged to pay in taxes under the various plans for tax revision. You can hear the loud wailing and muted thanks.

But let me shift grounds to a favorite procedure of my own: I have always believed that politicians — especially those of long tenure — should be subjected to the same kind of examination process as civil servants. This idea could easily be adapted for presidential debate purposes. First, each candidate would be asked to take a written examination in a high school auditorium. The answers would be copied — misspelling and grammatical flaws untouched — and published. The papers would be graded by a commission of Nobel Prize winners. Or, if that was not acceptable to the RNC, CNBC could follow the Iranian model and have the papers checked over and graded by religious leaders.

The next stage would be reserved for those candidates who made it past that first milestone: An oral exam on TV conducted by Nobel winners or selected clergy (including secular humanists). Those not winnowed out by this second stage would be checked over by security for loyalty, sincerity and such qualities to reduce the crowd to a core few.

The names and CVs of those candidates remaining would be given for final selection to a vetted group of RNC or DNC leaders in the traditional smoke-filled room. The old ways often work best.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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