WASHINGTON –– With one presidential debate down and two to go — not to mention a debate between the two major-party vice presidential candidates — it may be time to accept the fact that what millions of Americans are watching is not a debate, at least not in the truest sense of the word.
Imagine President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney verbally jousting with each other, without prompting from a moderator, and not for just 90 minutes but for two hours. And instead of fielding a volley of questions from a broad palette –– “domestic issues,” “foreign issues,” “the economy” –– the candidates duke it out verbally on a single, specific topic, such as job creation policies.
Were Obama and Romney to follow that format, it would look more like the kind of debates engaged in by collegiate teams throughout the country.
And, since debate teams on the college level each have two members, the vice presidential picks could join in.
Catholic colleges and universities have been well represented in the National Debate Tournament over the past 60 years, but this year, three Jesuit schools took top spots. Georgetown University in Washington finished first overall, its first national debate championship since 1992. Losing in the national semifinals were Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“I’ve never considered the presidential debates real debates,” said Jonathan Paul, Georgetown’s director of debate. “What they call a debate is a lot different from what a lot of academic institutions call a debate.” Still, after multiple expressions of this quadrennial exercise, Paul added, “I’m numb. It doesn’t anger me now.” In fact, he even took part in an Associated Press taping of the Oct. 3 presidential debate.
To make the presidential tilts more look like college debates, “there would have to be more direct cross-examination. Candidates would be allowed to ask directly what their opponent thought about an issue or what they would respond to a particular form of argument,” Paul said. Moreover, “it would be less moderated,” he added. “Most of the (presidential) debates are driven by a moderator.” The debates would have a judge and timekeeper to keep the debaters on track, much as in college debates.
In the 2012 GOP primary season, “what you saw in the eight or 10 Republican primary candidates’ debates, it was practically impossible for the moderator to direct traffic,” Paul told Catholic News Service, with the debates devolving into candidates offering “trivia.”
What came closest in Paul’s view to a college debate were the 2008 Democratic debates between Obama and Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state. “You got to see a lot more back and forth in that setting. Those were high-quality debates that I thought gave the audience and voters a chance to see the difference between the candidates and how they reacted under pressure,” he said.
College debaters scrutinize the presidential debates with an eye on what they can glean for their own use. “Some will watch to pick up information, or how to frame an argument,” said Jay Busse, director of debate at Loyola Marymount, who’s been with the program for 44 years and three National Debate Tournament semifinal appearances dating back to 1969.
If a presidential candidate mentions a topic during a debate, “that’s going to be a topic people are going to be debating” everywhere, Busse said, with the possible exception of the campus itself, “most college students feel relatively insulated” from politics, he added.
Not the debate team members, though. “They’re more interested than the average student in politics. These are issues that they’re reading about,” Busse said.
“I have some students who are going to be debating pros and cons of Obamacare on an extemporaneous basis. Even if they’re for Obamacare, they’re going to be advocating the Romney position.” Now there’s something you don’t see members of either party doing these days.
“In the traditional evidence-based debate format, if you ignore a point, you’re seen as conceding it, whereas nobody’s taking notes like that” during a presidential debate, Busse said.” People are just listening. It’s strategic to avoid a question, or to come out with a prepared response … that comes out at an oblique angle.”
This brings up another difference between college and presidential debates, according to Glen Frappier, director of forensics and a senior lecturer in Gonzaga’s communications arts department.
In college, Frappier said, it’s “all about the argument itself. It’s not about how pretty you sound. You’re being judged by trained coaches who also serve as your judges. You can sound awful, but as long as your argument itself is good, you’ve got good evidence to back it up and you’re not refuted very well,” you’ll prevail.
Even debaters can be at odds over who wins.
Frappier said the consensus among viewers at Gonzaga’s 2000 debate party was that Al Gore had won. Gore had come off as “professorial,” Frappier added. “We debaters view it for the substance. … But a lot of folks who watch the debates … don’t watch it for the substantive issues. It’s more of a personality contest. There was a large (national) consensus that (George W.) Bush had won. There were a lot of stylistic reasons,” for that, such as Gore “rolling his eyes at George Bush,” while “Bush came off very grandfatherly.”
As for the winners of the 2012 debates? “I think we’ll have to wait” till Nov. 6 “to really find out,” said Frappier.