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Debate Watching Tips from Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Reinhold Niebuhr
September 26, 2008

With debate season looming, we've asked viewers to submit questions they would to ask the candidates. You can add yours on our blog or via email to

We've received great questions thus far — everything from the big picture philosophical:

What is the truth, as you see it, about what our country is facing and how will you fully engage the American people in the solution?
To the very specific:
Please explain specifically how 'We the People" will benefit from the corporate bail-out. Make sure you cover how an unemployed person will see his/her life change; the effect on a person/family with a house in foreclosure; whether the action would do anything to raise the quality of life for the 'lower' 95%. What process would monitor bail-out results, and what corrective action will you take if/when it appears that only the already-wealthy are receiving benefit?

Many viewers have a wish list for "if we ran the debates." Top of that list: include more than the major party candidates, and, more importantly, ask for hows, specifics and even citations for every proposal, plan or platitude. The system of Presidential debates has changed significantly over the years. Between the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 and the first national radio debate between Republican presidential candidates — Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey — on the perils of Communism in 1948, debates didn't figure in much in our electoral process. Then came television. Find out more about debate history, before and after TV.

More has changed than the medium of the debates. For years moderated by the League of Women Voters, critics contend that the debates have been hijacked by the major parties who have crowded out not only third parties, but even follow-up answers. The League withdrew it's sponsorship in 1988 with a blunt statement: "The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." Protests leading up to the 2004 debate season led to some changes:

For the first time in 16 years, the contract drafted by the Republican and Democratic campaigns the 2004 Memorandum of Understanding has been made public. Now, the general public and the media can hold the candidates accountable for the debates they have designed. Also, for the first time in 12 years, there will be more than just one moderator asking the questions.
But critics maintain there is a long way to go in debate reform.

Debate-Watching Tips from Campaign Analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson

1) I recommend not watching the coverage immediately before the debate and, when the debate is finished, turn the television off and talk with others about what you saw and what was important to you. And think about what you saw.

2) Candidates make different assumptions about government's role, about economic policy, about the value of government regulation, about the role of the US in the world, about appropriate use of military power, about US relationships with other countries... and the like. Try to glean from the debate what are the governing philosophies of the candidates?

3) Come to a debate with a list of the issues that matter to you and ask what you learned about each candidate's record and promises on those issues. Where are they similar and how do they differ?

4) When a candidate promises a new program or any move that will reduce government revenue -- how will the candidate pay for it? Increase the deficit? Cut spending elsewhere and if so where? Raise taxes? On whom?

5) How accurate are candidates' descriptions of opponents' programs? And how accurate are a candidate's descriptions of his or her own record?

6) Is the candidate willing to tell voters things they don't want to hear about the challenges facing the country and what is required to address them?

7) If the country were faced with a crisis, what can you know from the candidates' past performance, character, and dispositions about whether the country would be in good hands?

Published September 26, 2008.

References and Reading: is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which Jamieson directs, that aims to monitor the accuracy of major national candidates' statements and rhetoric.

COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW: Campaign Desk The journalists at CJR turn their attention to "auditing" campaign ads, speeches and other media moments. In addition to CJR staff a group of veteran journalists will add their perspective to the Campaign Desk's analysis.

The Fact-Checker Run by veteran journalist Michael Dobbs, The Fact-Checker is a project of the WASHINGTON POST that publishes research evaluating and providing background and context to candidate statements and popular political stories.

Politifact and Truth-0-Meter Politifact is an extensively cross-referenced fact-checking resource run as a joint project by the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES and CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY.

Also This Week:

Is an imperial presidency destroying what America stands for? Bill Moyers sits down with history and international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life.

Read an excerpt from Bacevich's new book THE LIMITS OF POWER: THE END OF AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.

Read a speech on the "Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr."

Get a primer on the United States involvement with the Middle East.

Add your voice or our election year map. Plus, get perspective on pressing election-year issues from JOURNAL guests.

Campaign analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson offers her tips for watching the debates.

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