The Greatest Debate, the Best Presidential Debate

As a professional facilitator, I have been disappointed by the failure of moderators to better manage the 2016 presidential debates. A clear set of rules could help to avoid the disrespectful banter that has dominated the dialogue.

While recognizing the debates have become a source of entertainment, there is still time for a meaningful debate, if the media and the candidates are willing.

Two primary rules should be followed:

  • The candidates should agree to respect the opinions of others even if they don’t embrace that point of view. The late Justice Anthonin Scalia said it best: “I respect the people who have them, but I think those views are just flat out wrong.”
  • The moderator should never lose control of the microphone.

Candidates would be allowed to respectfully say “I don’t agree with the way the U.S. is handling this issue.” They would not be allowed to disrespectfully say “he is lying about that.”

To maintain respectful dialogue, the moderator should be able to mute the microphone of each candidate. The first time a candidate violates any rule, he or she is cut off for five minutes. The second time, the penalty is ten minutes. Five minutes would be added for each violation thereafter.

Given the disrespectful tenor of the past debates, these two additional rules should also apply:

  • No references to other candidates, their policies, or the names of past presidents. For example, candidates should not say “I want to get rid of ObamaCare,” but would be allowed to say “the Affordable Care Act doesn’t achieve the health care reform we need. This is what’s wrong with it and what I would do to fix it.” This effectively would describe a point of view about the current status of healthcare without disparaging a person or personalizing policy. Similarly, they would not be allowed to allude to their opponents in a negative way. The purpose would be to focus on their own points of view instead of just blaming or praising others.
  • Adjectives that provide an opinion would not be allowed. Given the current rancorous dialogue, this rule would remove the ability to describe a policy by just calling it “great” or to characterize a candidate by calling their hands “small.”

These are the questions and the progression of the debate that would make it work.

  1. In place of an opening statement, what are the three most important professional positions you have held that qualify you to be president?
  2. What are the three most important issues or problems that must be addressed or resolved? Describe your view about why each is a problem in no more than three sentences using facts.
  3. What would this issue look like in the future if you could fix the problem?

The issues would be listed on the screen in the order that they were most frequently mentioned and discussed in that order. Each candidate be asked to list the three most important steps they would take to address the issue.

During the remaining time, candidates would debate the ideas for each issue, testing each other’s responses, but not personalizing them.

Closing comments would be limited to describing what they learned during the debate that will help them present their viewpoints to the American people during the rest of the campaign.

The debate should not be a party-centric. There are eight candidates remaining, three Republicans, three Democrats, one Green, and one Libertarian. Democrat Roque De La Fuente is on the ballot in all fifty states but has been ignored. Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico, and Green candidate Jill Stein have also been invisible in the media.

De La Fuente, Johnson, and Stein have no chance of becoming president, but perhaps they have knowledge or points of view that would inform the dialogue. For example, De La Fuente is a major landowner on the Mexican border at San Diego and Johnson was the governor of a state bordering Mexico. They might provide some intelligent observations about border issues. Likewise, Jill Stein is a physician who might have thoughtful views on health care.

This debate format might attract and hold less viewers than those to-date, particularly those viewers who have been watching primarily to gape at the juvenile banter, but it would tell us more about the candidates and their ideas than we know now.

Two questions remain:

  • Is there a major media outlet willing to host a great debate, the best debate, using these rules?
  • Would the candidates participate if invited?

NOTE: This post first appeared in the Huffington Post on March 16, 2016.

Where In the West Are the Presidential Candidates?

As the presidential election cycle ramps up, the usual polarizations are apparent: blue states and red states, Tea Party vs. liberals, and right-to-life vs. choice. The new anti-establishment trend has firmly established itself with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gaining unexpected support.

However, another trend has gone unexplored by campaign analysts: the lack of candidates from the West.
Presidential Candidates Residences 2

The above map of all 2016 presidential candidates locates their city of residence and shows the South and the Northeast are well represented with well-known candidates, but the West doesn’t even have one with name recognition.

As defined by U.S. Census Bureau, the West has a population of 76 million, nearly 25 percent of the nation. Except for the Libertarian Gary Johnson from New Mexico and Democrat Roque De La Fuente from California, there are no candidates from the western half of the country. Both De La Fuente and Johnson are virtually unknown, have no access to debates, and might not be representative of the West even if they were to be heard. But we haven’t heard from them, so we don’t know.
Remaining Presidential Candidates Residences
As of February 21, 2016, ten candidates remained, and the map above of those remaining shows even more clearly the representation of candidates with name recognition from the South and the Northeast.

Every sitting president must take into account the needs of the populations of all the states. However, that accounting is shaped by the dialogue of the campaign season. Without strong, recognizable voices competing in the presidential campaign, even voices unlikely to win, the interests, issues and opportunities that come from the West will be less likely to be heard. As a result, western issues will be less likely to gain traction with the next administration.

“Without strong, recognizable voices competing in the presidential campaign, even voices unlikely to win, the interests, issues and opportunities that come from the West will be less likely to be heard.”

A good example is the immigration/border issue. The national agenda has focused on illegal immigration, closing the border, and striking fear into working class audiences about how illegal immigrants are taking U.S. jobs. A California point of view might ask how could the border be more open, how could we better take advantage of the synergies between our two economies, and how we can create programs that allow legal status to workers needed to fill seasonal positions so they aren’t considered criminals?

There are those who argue that U.S. workers won’t take jobs that are filled by immigrant workers. The discussion about how immigrant workers take low paying jobs does not rise to an understanding that workers who have crossed the border illegally have no way to object to low pay. There is no discussion about how pay levels might improve if those workers had legal status, even to the point where more U.S. workers would take some of those jobs. Whether these points of view are right or wrong the dialogue to bring clarity is missing.

Consumers and the businesses who hire undocumented immigrants likely benefit through lower labor costs and a resultant lower cost of goods and services, but at the expense of creating an illegal class of marginalized workers. This discussion is not on the table, in part because there are no candidates from the West who understand the immigration issues in a different way.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. is the largest import market for Mexico with $293 billion coming to the U.S. and Mexico is the second largest export market to the U.S. with $243 billion being exported to Mexico. Every dollar spent by the U.S. in trade with Mexico returns forty cents to the U.S. because the products Mexico exports to the U.S. contain a high percentage of U.S. components. Compare this to the exchange with China where only six cents is returned to the U.S. for each dollar spent on Chinese goods exported to the U.S. Where in the presidential debates is the dialogue on the importance of bringing manufacturing in China back to Mexico which would boost the economies of both Mexico and the U.S.? In addition, there would be global benefits in reducing carbon emissions and benefits to the U.S. companies outsourcing manufacturing because they would be closer to the manufacturing facilities. Who is talking about that?

The current relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has been forged through the High Level Economic Dialogue, an effort to place national priorities on cross-border transportation infrastructure, security, education and other issues of mutual importance. The educational initiative has a goal of 100,000 students from each country studying in the other country by 2020. This is intended to increase long-term relationships, cultural understanding and trade over time. With no western candidates, there are no voices to explain the strategy behind these initiatives or discuss whether it is important to the nation’s future.

From climate change and energy policy to water rights, there are viewpoints in the West that deserve focus in the campaign dialogue, but without western candidates to voice them, the silence is deafening.

NOTE;This article first appeared on LinkedIn on February 29, 2016, and later the same day on IVN.