Columns, Opinion

BERMAN: Let’s make debates about substance, not bluster

It seems that the side effects of two presidential debates are dozens of lies, moderators who struggle to get candidates to answer their questions and viewers who frequently forget the asked questions. If one looks at Donald Trump’s response to Anderson Cooper regarding Trump’s hot-mic misogynistic comments, it’s clear why the debates seem so ineffectual.

“This was locker room talk. I am not proud of it. I apologized to my family and the American people. I am not proud of it. This is locker room talk. When you have ISIS chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and wars and horrible, horrible sights all over and you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. The carnage all over the world and they look and see, can you imagine the people that are frankly doing so well against us with ISIS and they look at our country and see what’s going on. I am embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk and one of those things.”

I have no idea what locker room Trump is referring to in this statement. I’ve never been in a locker room where anyone has bragged about sexually assaulting women. It’s also quite sad that Trump’s defense rested on the fact that ISIS, a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of thousands, is worse. However, neither point was brought by Anderson Cooper because he must be “nonpartisan.”

The moderators of the debates try to remain fair and balanced, but they shouldn’t. At least not in a nonpartisan sense. The moderators should be committed to a balanced truth, not a balanced debate. Trump statistically lies more than Clinton, and the moderators need to make that clear.

Furthermore, both candidates and past candidates have a tendency of turning a question about topic A into mentioning an unrelated topic B. As Peter Dreier, an E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics of Occidental College, wrote, “Skilled politicians have perfected the art of avoiding answering direct questions. Each candidate has his or her must-say talking points regardless of the question. If a journalist asks, ‘When is your birthday?’ a Republican candidate will answer ‘I will reduce taxes on the job creators,’ while a Democratic candidate might respond, ‘I intend to end racial profiling by police.’”

Politicians aren’t to be blamed for this; it’s simple game theory. If one candidate stretches the truth and goes off topic in order to make a charismatic point, while the other sticks plainly to the dry, substantive questions, the former candidate will clearly make a better impression on the viewers. This causes both candidates to “pivot” from the questions being asked. However, it would be much better for the American people if the candidates were to have a substantive debate over the issues.

The moderators should interrupt candidates if they go off topic, call them out on lying and cut off their microphones if they interrupt the other candidate. I know it’s an insane idea that the moderators should actually moderate the debate, but it’s one worth trying. Media outlets need to be arbiters of truth; otherwise, candidates will get away with lies, and lies about lies.

While Clinton wasn’t completely truthful during her debate performances, it was no contest who won the lying contest. In a New York Times article “Trump’s Second Debate, in Brief,” David Leonhardt eloquently presents Trump’s disregard for the truth with an ironic twist.

“He lied about her immigration plan. He lied about her email deletion. He lied about Obamacare, more than once. He lied about the rape of a 12-year-old girl. He lied about his history of groping women without their consent,” Leonhardt said. “Finally, he broke with basic democratic norms and called on his political opponent to be jailed — because, in large part, of what he described as her dishonesty.”

Reforming the debates is bigger than this election. It has to do with reforming the system that seems uninterested in the truth.

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