Keep the Debates Quiet

The perfect audience.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This year's presidential debates have succeeded far beyond expectations -- for the networks. For the public, not so much.

No one wants to turn one of the fall season's biggest hits -- a hybrid of drama, comedy and reality TV -- into a national version of those local meetings commonly shown late at night on the public-access TV channel. But presidential debates should strive to inform more than entertain, and on that score they could stand some improvement.

To say this isn't to buy into the self-serving commentary of media critics like Ted Cruz. Nor is it necessary to concede to the comical demands made by several disgruntled Republican candidates after last week's CNBC debate. Making the debates better should be a bipartisan cause.

There is no shortage of suggestions, some more realistic than others. One that could make a big difference: Hold the debates in studios with no live audience. It would keep moderators and candidates alike from playing to the crowd, and it would increase the time candidates have to answer questions, while also removing incentives to dodge questions or score cheap points.

Regardless, any improvements should be judged according to a few guiding principles:

  • A debate should be among candidates, not between a candidate and a moderator. There's nothing wrong with a pointed question, and follow-ups are always necessary, but moderators should at all times strive to stay in the background.

  • The networks and the parties should err on the side of inclusion. It's fine for polling to determine eligibility, but once candidates are on the stage, the moderators should be responsible for upholding the principle of equal time as best they can.

  • Politics is fair game. Candidates should be asked not only about their plans, but how they would get them done. Incredibly, given Washington's dysfunction and the difficulty that presidents have had enacting their agendas, such questions remain all too rare.

There will always be complaints that this question or that was unfair, and there's no way to completely eliminate grandstanding, from either the candidates or the moderators. Not that you'd want to: It's the possibility of tension that keeps people watching. It's up to the political parties and the news media -- not to mention the candidates themselves -- to ensure their audience finds the debates engaging and enlightening.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.