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How To Turn Primary Debates Into Real Talk

The last few GOP primary debates have been sorry excuses for hard-hitting discussion. Here's how to make them better.

The first five GOP primary debates have been sorry excuses for hard-hitting discussion. The candidates have gotten about 491 minutes of screen time to regurgitate their talking points on taxes, jobs, the national debt, immigration, abortion, and gay marriage. Yet, aside from a few surprising moments, we haven't learned much about the candidates who are vying for Barack Obama's job. Sure, we heard Rick Perry double down on his assertion that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and we watched Michele Bachmann give Tim Pawlenty the smackdown. But when it comes to meaningful takeaways, there have been very few.

That's because the spectacle that passes for a primary debate isn't a true back-and-forth. General election debates are more substantive than those in the primaries, but there's really no reason for this. Debates, unlike stump speeches or photo ops, are ostensibly about nitty-gritty policy plans rather than the whole package. But isn't it just as important, if not moreso, to be able to distinguish between a bunch of people in the same party? The primary debates are in dire need of an overhaul, and just in time for tonight's sixth debate in Florida, we've got some suggestions.

Whittle down the candidates. At the last GOP debate, there were a total of eight people with varying chances of winning a general election, much less their party's nomination. There could have been even more people on that stage. Almost-candidates Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani were invited to the debates because of their poll numbers, despite the fact that neither has confirmed a run. The debate committee has the best intentions in being inclusive, but eight people is too many to sustain a real conversation.

Why not make a rule that after the third round, there can be no more than five candidates on the stage? The field could be trimmed based on a combination of candidates' poll numbers and performance in previous debates. At this point, there's no good reason for anyone but Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul to be on that stage. Sorry, but unless a candidate has confirmed she's running, there's no place for her up at the podium.

Give the participants more time to answer. Now that we've trimmed down the sparring pool, the candidates should have a little more time to answer each question. The current format is one minute to reply and just 30 seconds to follow up. We're not fans of long, rambling answers, but 30 seconds barely gives a candidate enough time to clear her throat. There also used to be a space given for candidates to give opening and closing statements, but that was eliminated, probably because it was boring and it gave participants even more of a chance to pontificate without being challenged. Let's relax the time limits a little so they can explain themselves.

Of course, no time limit in the world is going to prevent candidates from veering off into talking-point land. At this point, it's up to the anchors to...

Call them out when they sidestep a question. Last week, when Perry was asked about Texas' poor jobs record, he completely ignored the question, twice. But rather than pressing him on it, Brian Williams moved on, allowing Perry's rhetoric to hang in the air. This kind of thing happens all the time. Newt Gingrich dodged a question about health care last week by accusing the media of "puff[ing] this up into some giant thing." Back in August, Romney refused to explain why he raised taxes to secure a good S&P rating. These moments waste everyone's time.

A way to avoid artful dodging is to take a cue from the general election and frame each debate under a big umbrella: "The Foreign Policy Debate," "The Jobs Debate," or "The Social Issues Debate." It would make it all the more obvious when a candidate hijacks the conversation to stand on his soapbox instead of addressing the issues.

On a related note...

Call them out when they lie. When Herman Cain blatantly denied saying that local communities should be able to ban mosques, the newscasters took his answer at face value. Even if the anchors don't have time to correct people on the spot, they should be obligated to fact-check during the commercial breaks or after the show, Maddow-style.

Everyone's been wishing for a little more real talk in politics, and debates are a good place to start. If the debate committee took these suggestions to heart, maybe more than a tiny fraction of the electorate would tune in. And then maybe, just maybe, we'd all be armed with the right information to choose a candidate we believe in.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user

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