Resolved: That Was No Debate

By John Sexton

Los Angeles Times

October 9, 2004

The presidential debates — the second of which will be held tonight — are the result of extended negotiations, enormous preparation and a careful choreography driven by dozens of pages of rules in which no detail is too small for negotiation.

There's only one problem, one that thousands of competitive debaters and their coaches would recognize in an instant: Not one of these events deserves to be called a debate.

The organizers have appropriated the word — debate — and they have applied it to these performances in service of an illusion. The real purpose, of course, is clear: The candidates want to use these events to sell themselves to the public. A debate in the true sense of the word, by contrast, would have a starkly different purpose: to inform the public of the differences between the two candidates, and the implications of those differences.

From 1960 to 1975, my principal activity was coaching a team of girls in debate at St. Brendan's High School in Bro oklyn. Five times we were national champions, and I assure you that they understood what a real debate was — an ongoing, focused, rigorous verbal battle.

By contrast, when George W. Bush and John F. Kerry met in Coral Gables, Fla., last week, they delivered serial stump speeches standing side by side. They offered paragraphs extracted from familiar monologues triggered by a key word tucked away in a question, pitched a few well-calculated "gotcha" lines, and tried to manage their body language and appearance.

We have lost the ability in our public discourse to speak to one another in a way that moves ideas forward, that can result in enlightenment — or at least reflection — and that ends in disagreement without rancor. The presidential debates exemplify the collapse of civil discourse, and perhaps they even accelerate its downward spiral.

Informed discussion of issues of importance is a basic premise of democracy; these days, when the issues are so complex and so co nsequential, its absence is keenly felt. It is puzzling to me that we have allowed this to happen. Candidates Bush and Kerry even shared the same debate teacher at Yale. But, somewhere between competitive debate and candidacy, some force reshaped and debased the mode of discourse.

In a real debate, the debaters take a position, offer a set of reasons, listen carefully to their opponent's critique of those reasons and then offer a defense, attempting to blunt the critique.

What we got last week — and what we can expect again tonight, I'm afraid — was something quite different. Several times in Florida the president asserted, mantra-like, that Kerry's criticisms of his handling of the war undermined our troops and the effort against terrorism; but the president was never pushed to explain how. Similarly, Kerry's assertion that his positions on the war were consistent and tied to evolving events was left unexplained and untested.

It is particularly regrettable that these ev ents are taking place at universities. Universities are, because of their nature, among the last institutions in American society where a commitment to rigorous discourse is retained. They are modern sanctuaries for dialogue — free, unbridled and unconstrained discourse in which claims are examined, confirmed, deepened or replaced. Had last week's encounter been a real debate, a university would have been the ideal setting; as it is, it is ironic that a respected university like Miami is reduced (through no fault of its own, I might add) to providing auditorium space.

It is time for a change. We should make federal campaign funds available only if candidates participate in a true debate. The ground rules should be determined by a neutral commission, so that we don't end up with side-by-side news conferences. If a candidate refuses to debate, it should trigger additional funding for his or her opponent and free television airtime. Moreover, the rules of the debate must be changed to make it more competitive and less staged. There should be extended rounds of exploration for each question, and the candidates should have the right to cross-examine one another.

As viewers, and as citizens, we have a right to expect the debates to do more than provide a platform for simple, sound-bite-driven, focus-group-derived positions and a few lame jokes. We have a right to expect a format that illuminates each candidate's positions and offers an opportunity to examine the wisdom of those positions, that lets us see whether those positions can withstand the scrutiny of his opponent, and that demonstrates whether each presidential aspirant can extend a defense of his position with precision and depth.


John Sexton is president of New York University and a member of the debate Hall of Fame.