(cross posted at Fox & Hounds Daily)
In this partisan time, there's one reform all Californians should agree on.
We need to change the way we do candidates' debates.
In this political season, the debates for California governor and U.S. senator have been too rushed. Their overall length of these debates - 60 minutes - is too short given all the different topics that debate organizers want to cover. And the time for candidate responses to questions (usually between 30 and 90 seconds tops) doesn't allow for much more than a very hurried recital of talking points.
As a result, the candidates resort to speaking more quickly and in shorthand that's only understood by political insiders. It was particularly frustrating to listen to Jerry Brown in the first debate. He was trying to answer the questions (Whitman mostly ignored the questions), but it was next to impossible to understand much of what he said as he rushed through his answers. And I'm a native English speaker. Heaven help the millions of Californians for whom English is a second language.
And the debate moderators are making things worse. I hate to say this - most of the moderators and questioners at these debates are journalistic colleagues and friends far more distinguished than me - but the moderators have been too aggressive, getting in the way of real exchange. It's good that moderators jump in when candidates ignore the question and go in another direction, but the interruptions often break the flow and have been too frequent in this fall's debates.
The interruptions in the Boxer-Fiorina radio debate last week came an average of one every 45 seconds. At times, the moderators cut off their own questions.
What's the solution?
Get rid of the moderators.
It wouldn't be as strange or difficult as it sounds. Put the two candidates on stage, and let them talk to each other. The candidates would pose questions and keep each other on topic and on time. If one candidate were rude and hogged the time or went off topic, the other could call him or her on it. It's a good bet that candidates would be on their best behavior.
There could be a few rules and very loose time limits, enforced by an off-stage producer. My suggestion: pick a handful of topics - not more than four in a 60-minute debate. And agree that the candidates will talk about each for 15 minutes, before moving on. For a governor's debate, those topics might be the budget, political reform, education and the environment.
What you'd get would be a conversation, less hurried and easier to understand. In such a conversation, candidates would be at pains to identify areas where they agree as well as explaining, in detail, their disagreements.
Of course, there's little chance of this happening. Why? Two words. Political consultants. They are control freaks, and it's easier to control the hurried debates we have.