When did the Debate become “Dancing with the Stars”?

February 7, 2016

Like many other voters, I watch political debates to learn what each candidate has in mind regarding improving the various ills of the country. Yet every time they stand on stage to debate, dressed in their identical dark suits, they seem to embrace their moment in the spotlight as an opportunity for self-directed oratory, regardless of the questions asked.

So why won’t politicians answer the moderators’ questions?

Ted Cruz telling a sad story about his half-sister, before obliquely blaming the Mexicans. Photo: CNN

Ted Cruz telling a sad story about his half-sister, before obliquely blaming the Mexicans. Photo: CNN

All candidates — from both the left and the right — are guilty of this. They are asked a question such as “What is your stance on same-sex marriage?” and it turns into a character assassination of their opponent. A question about a specific issue such as deaths from heroin overdoses or caring for veterans comes back as a justification for building a wall to keep the Mexicans out, or for going back to war, or for blaming the current administration. There is no connection, and no attempt at connection, and this smacks of arrogance in the extreme. The candidates simply steer each opportunity to speak towards a prepared stump speech. The problem is we already know what they stand for. We want to know exactly how they will achieve their goals and fulfill their promises.

The mediators themselves seem powerless. They ring their bells, and they attempt to interrupt, but the candidates talk on, abusing the rules of engagement, and blindly charging ahead. Almost always, for the moderators, some instinctive sense of politeness invariably forces them back into meek silence, bullied, once again by a politician’s ego.

Although there are many voters whose decisions are made solely on the strength of a candidate’s personality, there are many more who wish to truly understand what that candidate is going to do to fix a particular problem. We don’t want scripted, flag-waving jingoism. We want  the nuts and bolts of how a proposed solution will work, step-by-step, and how it is better than the competitors’ own plans. Just saying “I have a way, way better idea,” is a bluff at best, and a lie at worst. It says absolutely nothing.

Perhaps the sponsors of the debates are the nervous ones. Perhaps they do not wish to see a conflict between moderators and speakers, but instead a nice smooth show-and-tell. Not so much a debate, but instead a Washington version of Dancing With the Stars, with each competitor twirling to their own tune, but no contact and no depth:  sequins over substance.

I would like to see a debate where the moderators retain complete control. If a candidate does not stop speaking 10 seconds after the bell is rung, his/her microphone is turned off for five minutes. Same thing if a candidate does not directly answer the question asked, but instead pursues their own personal agenda.

Perhaps also, to further the spirit of democracy and responsible (small) government, the frequency by which candidates are allowed to speak — a highly prized commodity when there are more than three individuals on stage — should be based on the clarity and accuracy of their answers. This could be a scored system. The more times the candidate is scolded about drifting off-topic, the lower their score becomes, and the lower they rank on the speaking  hierarchy.

The debates in their current form simply show politicians demonstrating their true colors: blithely ignoring the requests of their public and pursuing their own agendas without fear of confrontation. Candidates often say they seek to win votes by listening to the voters. Maybe they can demonstrate this in action by first listening to the moderators, and then responding as instructed. They are, after all, supposed to be public servants.