By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp[*]
Last month, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators of the upcoming debates between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. One of the Commission’s criteria for selecting the moderators was reportedly an “understanding that a moderator’s role is to facilitate conversation between the candidates, not participate in it.” The Commission could have been paraphrasing a line from Professor Charles Collier’s recent piece, which proposed modeling the debates upon legal trials. Collier’s proposal flows from his belief that the current debates are too superficial and that the candidates should spend their time questioning each other without the active participation of a moderator. He argues that the questioning should resemble a legal trial, where each advocate first has the opportunity to present a “version of the truth,” and the jury—the electorate—then decides which version to accept. He further argues that the moderator should assume a role similar to that of a judge at a trial: one who “makes no substantive contribution to the discussion but simply polices the outer boundaries of what is in essence a supervised dialogue.”
The idea has already stimulated discussion. This is unsurprising, given the proposal’s obvious appeal to policy wonks craving more detail about the candidates’ positions, lawyers who wish they were cross-examining the candidates, and enthusiasts of competitive debate (like me) who want the presidential debates to be less “fluffy.” The Commission seems to share Collier’s sentiment to some extent; less than a week before the first debate, it announced the modification of the format to “open the possibility of the moderator inviting candidates to question each other,” citing the need for “more expansive discussion.” While I sympathize with Collier’s effort to increase the value of presidential debates, his proposal suffers from three deficiencies. First, Collier romanticizes and mischaracterizes trials. Second, he does not acknowledge the constraints on the time and attention span of the debates’ audience. Finally, he fails to recognize the virtues of the current format of the debates. Still, he correctly identifies some serious flaws in the current format, and I attempt to capture the value of those insights in a timely counterproposal that reserves an active role for the moderator and suggests rethinking the criteria used to select the moderator.