Let’s Make Debates Great Again

This time could be different

Kevin Donovan
4 min readJun 11, 2024
Photo by Melnikov Dmitriy

Televised political debates (and their salient memories) have come a long way from their austere early days of Kennedy vs. Nixon (Nixon sweating). There was the Reagan Mondale debate (“I’m not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience”), the Vice-presidential Bentson-Quayle debate (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”), the Obama — Romney debate ( “Binders full of women”), and many more. While the stodgy format of debates has generally endured, the content that we are subjected to has devolved into policy-free food fights that offer little more value to the viewers than a professional wrestling match.

It doesn’t have to be this way. How about, instead of having 90% of the time being wasted on mutually assured destruction, we demand a format that requires the candidates to spend much more time debating themselves rather than each other? Here’s what this means:

While the format of debates is frozen in time, we live in a media landscape that has advanced far beyond what we could have imagined a half century ago. There are now what seem like an infinite number of media driven narratives, interpretations and realities that prospective voters are expected to sort through to inform their voting decision. There is no consensus on anything, and to further complicate matters, much of what is served up through digital media can be manipulated for political gain. It will only become worse unless we can reach some consensus on what is true and false, and act based on some version of a common reality.

Debates offer an actual, if narrow, opportunity for candidates to directly share their plans and vision with the largest possible audience. Any TV time that is spent attacking their opponents or denying what they have said is time they don’t have to tell us what they actually plan to do. But there is a solution: Multi-media enhancements.

With the benefit of a large video screen placed center stage above and behind the candidates, each question would be preceded by a video, a tweet, a written quote, or other content that is certified or witnessed to have originated directly from the candidate. That candidate would then have to respond exclusively to what they have previously stated without the luxury of being able to deny its reality — the denials and accusations being the very thing that so often sparks the name calling and cross talk that wastes all of our time.

This does not have to be an exercise in “gotcha” journalism — a practice that is also useless for voters. Content could be policy-focused, allowing moderators to offer the candidates the opportunity to clarify or elaborate on their stated intentions. A discussion on climate change might look like this:

For Joseph Biden, the following would appear on the screen:

February 2023 — Biden-Harris Fact Sheet regarding the Biden Infrastructure Law

“ . . . These steps will help the United States meet President Biden’s ambitious goals to confront the climate crisis, by building a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers along America’s highways and in our communities . . . by 2030.”

Moderator: To date there have been only a handful of charging stations that have come on-line. How do you explain that shortfall and how do you plan to hit your stated goal?

For Donald Trump, we might see a video with a relevant quote:

March 21 2023 interview with Stuart Varney on Fox Business News

“In my opinion, you have a thing called weather, and you go up, and you go down. If you look into the 1920s, they were talking about a global freezing, okay? In other words, the globe was going to freeze. And then they go global warming, then they couldn’t use that because the temperatures were actually quite cool. And many different things. So now they just talk about climate change. The climate’s always been changing.”

Moderator: Former President Trump, can you explain your position on climate change. Do you still believe that it is a hoax, and if not, how serious of a problem do you believe it is and what are your plans to address it?

The debate would continue, using verifiable representative statements from each candidate to cover each major policy issue. Among many other things, it would be useful to clarify exactly what Biden’s “red line” is in Gaza based on what he has said most recently, as well as having Trump justify his stated intent to use the DOJ to imprison his political enemies.

Candidates would be unable to claim that statements were “taken out of context” or distorted. Each of these exchanges would utilize the candidates’ own words as a way to frame the questions, allowing them to defend or expand upon what they believe rather than engaging in direct verbal combat with their opponent.

Similar to the way in which the Congressional January 6th hearings were conducted in 2022, the addition of multi-media content can greatly enhance the audience experience and provide much needed focus on the issues. The back-and-forth would be limited because each candidate would effectively be responding to themselves rather than their opponent. And while it’s tempting to use content that highlights the gaffes and “senior moments” suffered by both candidates, the selection of clear policy-related statements and assertions will best serve the public interest.

We remain an ongoing experiment in self-governance, and never before has misinformation and disinformation represented a greater threat to the strength and stability of America. This approach will cut through the conflicting narratives and give us something we all need today more than ever: a shared reality and understanding of each candidate’s intentions as president in the years ahead.

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Kevin Donovan

Where there is great fear, there is no empathy. Where there is great empathy, there is no fear.