The Modern Political Debate: A New Perspective to Encourage Substance over Pageantry

I’ll be honest, I only watch the political chatter during the primary season with minor curiosity since I have been a registered non-partisan voter my entire voting record and the states I’ve lived in only allow voters in the party to participate. Very early on I was not someone who jumped into “group” think. I do not say that as a knock to those who enjoy the political arena, it’s just not my cup of tea.


But as I was channel surfing, I happened to be on a news channel that was showing pre-primary coverage as preparations were being done on the stage as the candidates arrived. I couldn’t help but have a flashback to the last presidential election when I had the honor of acting as the main production contact for our resort for the First Democratic Debate on CNN.


To date, it is one of the top 5 events I have ever been involved with and it’s probably in the top 3 from a logistically challenging perspective. The coordination between media, press, sponsors, Secret Service and every other security operation known by their acronym was a challenge. It was like moving an army! Depending on the news story of the day, any interview location or “shot” could change in minutes. The tension was high!


This flashback got me thinking about the discussions of the past with the Kennedy/Nixon debates and how televised debates seemed to make it a popularity contest. With the lines of news, social media, and editorial becoming more blurred, the debates look less like debates and resemble a political reality show. I do not say this judgmentally but just purely on the surface of what mechanics and logistics are required to put on these events. Plus each debate is run by the particular party and, although meant to test their candidates, they still try to control the message.


So as always at VISIONS I looked in the mirror to see what I could do about it and came up with this idea. I do not propose to change what is in place. Politics is a business, game, whatever you want to call it and just like all business you need to evolve to remain relevant. I leave that to those in the race already. The landscape has changed again, getting your “message” out is now affordable and doable at every level. However, what seems to have been lost is impartiality from the messenger.


In our history the “press” has always been adversarial to the government, but because there were fewer sources it was often well known as to the “lean” or “bias” of the periodical etc. Today, if you do not pay attention everything is presented as FACT.


Case in point, after starting to think about my idea I pulled three articles the day after the debates that preceded Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas.


Analysis: Chris Cillizza’s winners and losers from the Iowa debate (CNN)

Opinion: Jeanne Zaino: Iowa Democratic Debate-Winners and losers (FOX)

Biggest Takeaways from the January Democratic Debate (TIME staff writers).

I highly suggest you read all three. I know there are no surprises necessarily on their content perspective, but my point is the problem and challenge it presents to having a meaningful conversation. If you only watch CNN and take that as gospel, that shapes your perspective a certain way. The same is true if you only watch FOX. That is not an effective route to achieve a balanced and objective political perspective.


What I propose is “we the people” take control of some debates: 6 months, 3 months and finally 30 days out from first primary. We can use technology to acquire the relevant issues the voting public wants to address. We can then work to re-establish the normal strict debate rules on time.


Leadership has always had a popularity contest part to it. Being likable and believable can greatly enhance your ability for people to listen and follow you. In looking for the people that will be speaking and acting on our behalf, I believe we need a character test also. The current debate format may expose those flaws and assets, but it’s largely been reduced to one liner and “gotcha” moments.



To try and take out even more bias, I would even suggest the first debate not be a debate per se but more of a presentation of platform and ideas from the candidates. We can put it online in schools, community centers and, yes, your phone. Candidates are given the top 10 issues prior to the debate date and are required to give written responses before the debate begins.


The moderator can then act as normal and guide the questions for clarity or more detail, but the candidates must write their responses! All candidates are only shown as #1, #2 etc., randomly drawn before start — without showing the actual candidates on camera.


Think about it, eventually most everyone will know who said what (but as we sometimes find out what someone sees or hears can sometimes be different). This format would give us the ability early on to “judge” our candidates purely by content. Their political bent may still come through as they should, but that’s what this process is about. Making this about substance over pageantry may very well take out our biases on a decision that of course affects us individually, and also collectively.

Let me add, although this is somewhat (although not altogether) separate from the debate topic, what happened in the Iowa primary on the Democratic side speaks to the serious need for ordinary people to be more involved in the selection process. Vote tallies weren’t available upon the conclusion of the voting with today’s vote counting technology is absurd. We also need to reformat how the delegates are accounted for and distributed (they’re currently not formatted in keeping with ‘each vote is equal’), and we need to mitigate the potential for manipulation of results. These issues are the cause of further degradations of public trust.


It also speaks to the need for “seasoned” leadership and perhaps even someone willing to challenge the “group think” leadership that is so often present in politics. Did anyone ask the simple question, “If the app fails, what’s the backup plan?”. The results suggest even if it was asked that there wasn’t substantive consideration and action given to the answer.


As with all my thoughts, my hope is to start a conversation that provides direction, leadership and most importantly effective results in solving and accomplishing great things.


“Confidence, like art, never comes from having the answers: it comes from being open to all the questions.”

Earl Stevens



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