Anyone watching political debates knows they’ve degraded into useless infomercials instead of debates. The candidates never answer the question posed, instead launching into prepared monologues while the moderator (probably restrained by the rules) never gets to challenge them. But a recent event featuring Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Mario Cuomo showed a real debate is possible — with disagreement yet civility. Gingrich and Cuomo squared off with no rules; each made a 30 minute statement and then answered questions from moderator Tim Russert. What are the odds any Republicrat candidates accepting such terms? One candidate has accepted the challenge and agreed to nine ninety minute debates in nine weeks. Will anyone else step up?
The Problem — non-debate debates
The problem is candidates preach to the choir, never venturing out into real debate and discussion. Instead of discussing the issues, they issue carefully framed monologues prepared before, engineered to get the candidates “talking points” emphasized instead of real discussion of the issues.
We have all become used to candidates appearing at events where the audience is made up of ideologically sympathetic supporters. Most candidates for president know all too well how to get cheers of approval from their bases with well delivered poll-tested partisan talking points. However, it would be a different situation entirely if candidates had to consistently appear in front of people who are not inclined to be in agreement with them. Add to that, someone from the other party who will challenge their positions, then add to that someone from the media who knows how to cut through the rhetoric. Now, that is a much more substantial challenge and one likely to produce a much better quality of meaningful dialogue about how to meet the many challenges facing the country.
So Gingrich and Cuomo demonstrated a real, civilized debate is possible in the history of Lincoln-Douglas, but it hasn’t received much press coverage.
The debate was hardly covered in the news media. It wasn’t sexy. No nasty sound bites. No personal insults exchanged.
It was just a straightforward expression of views by Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Mario Cuomo. Each spoke for more than a half hour expressing his views on Iraq, health care, values. Then they answered questions from moderator Tim Russert.
This was a moment unlike any other in the current Presidential campaign. As historian Harold Holzer told the audience that filled the old hall on East 7th Street, the political process has been dumbed down, with marketing strategies replacing substance.
Gingrich and Cuomo agreed. Their speeches were robust, but character assassination, innuendo, negative images were absent.
Solution — Nine Nineties in Nine
The solution to the non-debate debates is “Nine Nineties in Nine” — nine real debates with no rules (except time limits). The candidates must be civilized, answer questions, face issues, and demonstrate ability to think on their feet while backing up their claims with facts — or face stinging rebuke by their opponent or the moderator. How many candidates will accept such a non-scripted challenge? Rudy Giuliani has stepped up to the challenge, but will anyone else? How many candidates really want an actual debate?
Newt Gingrich has more on the challenge:
“If I receive my party’s nomination for President of the United States, I pledge to participate in nine, ninety-minute dialogues in the nine weeks before the general election with my opponent. In the Lincoln-Douglas style, I will agree to debate my opponent with only a time-keeper, and to insist upon no rules. I understand it will be just me and my solutions and my opponent with theirs.”
Tim Russert from Meet the Press stated in the Great Hall at Cooper Union that he would ask every presidential candidate if they would agree to nine ninety-minute debates in nine weeks. I am asking you to do the same. When a candidate asks for your support, ask them if they will take the Nine Nineties in Nine Pledge.
Nine real debates. Now those we’d watch and the people would be much better informed of not only how the candidates feel on the issues, but how they think on their feet and back up their claims.
- Nine Nineties in Nine
- Video of the debate
- Come to Cooper Union
- Gingrich, Cuomo To Walk in Lincoln’s Footsteps