The Republican presidential debates — 36 of them so far, with another set for Thursday night — are a ratings smash. The networks and cable news channels have each taken turns setting new viewership records. The audiences howl with anger and delight, and even the candidates want more of them, not less.
But are they good for democracy?
With their inane questions (Would you be submissive to your husband? Deep dish pizza, or thin crust?) strict time constraints and Pep Rally-like atmospheres, the debates seem less concerned with eliciting substantive answers to important policy questions than with pitting the candidates against each other in a bruising, bare-knuckled political cage match. Maybe that’s good sport and fun TV — one writer approvingly compared the debates to “the best reality TV shows” — but it’s not actually all that helpful for voters trying to decide who the next president should be.
Once in a while there’s a game-changing moment — Rick Perry’s “oops” debacle, Newt Gingrich’s anti-media screed — but for the most part, it’s red meat and circuses. The candidates pontificate, snarling at each other and at the media (Ron Paul, in particular, gets picked on mercilessly by his rivals and the crowd). And the questions aren’t all that penetrating either. No one seems to remember now, but the question that got Perry in trouble was this stumper: “Gov. Perry, you play only home games in Texas. Do you give [Mitt Romney] points for winning on the road?”
There’s no point in scrapping the debates altogether — it’s not as if the candidates have more noble things to do with their time — but if we’re going to keep them, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Maybe we should drop all the reality TV fanfare (CNN actually gave nicknames to its “cast” of candidates), or maybe we should silence the audience (or, conversely, get the audience more involved). Maybe the moderators need to ask better questions — or maybe they should stop letting the candidates off the hook when they dodge and pander to the crowd.
So we’re asking you: Help us fix the debates — please. No idea is too crazy. More time? More candidates? More questions? Would you take away the podiums? Would you make the moderators regular people? Would you add a point system? Would you add an obstacle course, hot coals, electroshocks for the candidates when they duck questions? (OK, maybe some ideas are too crazy.)
Whatever the answer is, tell us. We’re crowd-sourcing your best ideas for how to make the debates better, more interesting and more informative. Post them in the comments section below, or on Facebook or Twitter using the hash tag #fixthedebates. Vote for your favorites in the comments section on this page or on Facebook by clicking the “like” button, or by retweeting them. We’ll pick the best and most popular answers and post them here. Who knows, maybe the Commission on Presidential Debates is listening?