Last night’s debates were striking both for the President’s flat performance and for his challenger’s breathtaking and repeated mendacity. I loved one of the post debate spinners who described Romney’s talk of taxes as “eat all the cake you like, you won’t get fat”.
But it’s not anywhere near the first time that a candidate has told serial porkies on the Presidential debate stage. And if we keep on structuring debates in more or less the same way it will happen again: The form seems to if not invite lies, at least make them too easy.
Can something be done to prevent lying in Presidential debates? I have a simple suggestion that will greatly reduce the opportunity for lies, admitting that nothing can eradicate them completely: The moderator’s key questions on the issues should be released to the candidates and the public 48 hours in advance of the debates.
It is silly to think that the element of surprise adds value to these events. Allow the candidates to do scripted talks and then have the surprises be the back and forth as they interact and ask each other followups. Allow followups from the moderator if you trust him or her to be less milquetoast than the hapless Jim Lehrer. But if you must have surprise as to the basic questions, reduce it to a fraction of the event.
Releasing at least a substantial fraction of the questions in advance will unleash the fact-checkers on all sides. It will promote debate. It will allow campaigns to set up web sites in which they give backup for their claims. In a more perfect world than we actually have, we could aim for a week in advance, and hope that a consensus dataset would evolve in real rather than nominal dollars, but I know that is just an academic pipe dream. It won’t happen, and a week is a long time in politics anyway.
But even 48 hours will allow the mobilization of enough external expertise that it would put candidates on notice that there are limits to what they can reasonably hope get away with.
My picks for winners and losers:
Pre-debate winner: James Fallows, who called it pretty well.