A Simple Way to Vastly Reduce Lying in Presidential Debates

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.

Post-debate winner: Paul Krugmann, A Test of the System and Romney’s Sick Joke

Post-debate losers: Jim Lehrer and all the rest of us too.

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9 Responses to A Simple Way to Vastly Reduce Lying in Presidential Debates

  1. burt says:

    * On health care: if you don’t like your insurance, for instance, they don’t cover a pre-existing condition, fire them and get another. That’s what I do. Competition works.
    * And there’s always the emergency room. Why plan. If you are in an emergency room you are probably the type that won’t take responsibility for your life ever anyway.
    * We can grow jobs by cutting taxes. But in a revenue neutral way. For instance, many countries do this by changing the name. France calls them “les impots”. Because it’s “in the pot”, you see. We can grow jobs by cutting taxes and keeping revenue neutral by calling the les imports.
    * Spain should do this. Boy they are a mess. They have decided to run budget surpluses only in a good economy. The moment the bottom falls out, they resort to spirt crushing budget deficits.
    * I met this guy, and I was talking to him, and he said that he paid sales tax and employment tax, and when you add it up it was like 50%. I was so shocked I forgot to give him my accountant’s number. My account is great. You can pay on a sliding scale of anywhere between 10 and 15% tax.
    * So I don’t get it? Why aren’t the 47% paying sales tax and employment tax? [Waves hands and acts angry.]
    * I’ve been in business for 25 years and I’ve never heard of a tax break for moving the operations of a corporation. Although, that would be a tax break that would benefit only my client, so I might have overlooked it.
    * …

  2. Michael,

    Doesn’t the element of surprise improve our chances of learning something about the candidates,what they believe and what they know, that a more scripted back-and-forth would not? A more choreographed debate would reduce the chances that the candidates would lie, but do we really want to prevent lying in a presidential debate? If a candidate is a liar, we’d rather learn that sooner than later, right?

    More importantly, doesn’t the element of surprise give us the opportunity to see the candidates performing under a little bit of pressure? To improve the debates I would increase stress, not reduce it: find the candidates’ greatest fears and conduct the debates in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love.

    • Doesn’t the element of surprise improve our chances of learning something about the candidates,what they believe and what they know, that a more scripted back-and-forth would not?

      1. Maybe in theory….but not so much in practice, given the last 20+ years of evidence.

      2. You can still program time for back and forth in the shadow of a pre-released question if you think that’s a good idea (I’d be for it).

      3. If you really feel a need to enable ‘gotcha’ or unscripted off-the-wall moments, we can reserve 15 minutes for those. But why have it be the whole debate? It’s just not working.

  3. So when does affirmative action stop? Seems to me Obama has effectively ridden that wave his entire life. Now you want to change yet another set of rules for him.

    He got pounded because he has no clue how to be a president, and Romney is finally exposing what the media tries so desperately to hide.

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