Let’s Agree on How to Disagree

By Brian Nistler

If you have been watching the debates this political season you may be wondering why there is not more decorum present, why President Obama and Governor Romney often speak over each other and how some moderators have not been able to reign in either of the candidates. Surprising as it may sound there exists a debate agreement, a memorandum of understanding, between President Obama and Governor Romney. This 21 page agreement covers all three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, with special provision for each of the debates. The purpose of the agreement is to maintain decorum during the debates as well as set out a lose form of the debates. The agreement covers a variety of different aspects of the debates, such as the dressing rooms of the participants, the time limits on their responses, and each candidate being allowed their own makeup person.

The agreement covers a wide range of potential issues that could arise during the debate, issues such as the type of chairs used during the debates, the temperature of the room (both agreed to 63 degrees), the candidates not being able to ask a direct question or make a pledge to the other, the limited space in which they may walk around, not being able to leave their podiums during the first debate, the type of microphones used by the candidates in the town hall debate, and neither candidate being able to cite a specific person in the debate, except for a family member. Additionally, the agreement lays out the specified time given to responses and how long the candidate could speak.

An interesting provision of the agreement provides that no candidate may use notes, props, charts, diagrams, or a portable electronic device. One is left to wonder how the use of charts and diagrams could clear up more murky aspects of both candidates tax plan and the funding of Medicare. The debate would have quite a different air if the candidates could have notes.

The agreement also lays out the format for the second debate in a Town Hall style, each question to be asked by an audience member was to be submitted before the debate to the moderator, the person asking the question could not ask a follow up question, and once his/her question was asked would have their mike turned off. Crowley, the moderator for the second debate, was also not allowed to ask a follow up question, however this was not the case in the debate. Crowley, not bound by the agreement and thus free to ask follow up questions, played a far larger role that what was initially intended, she even pressed the question and forced the candidates to focus on what was actually asked. This begs the question what role does the agreement play if Crowley is able to disregard it.

The only punishment laid out in the agreement for a violation is the moderator is to say it was against the agreement; no teeth are given to this agreement to compel the candidates to adhere to its rules. This has resulted in adherence to some components, such as the room temperature, but others, like the time limits, being completely disregarded.

The agreement raises several question about the format of the debates, namely to what extend it is useful and effective and if it in any way limits the discussion of the candidates’ differing perspectives. Question such as, should the audience be allowed to ask follow up questions? Should candidates be able to use charts, notes, etc? And, what role should the moderator play?

Certain parts of the agreement are needed; some rules of war must be set but has this agreement in some way limited the discussion of which candidate would be a better president? When will our commander in chief be required to not have any notes when making in important decision that will affect the lives of every American? Why cant I see a chart that explains Romney’s tax code instead of being told over and over again that it just works, rhetoric is cheap; math cannot lie.

I also don’t think that either candidate fully answered the question posed to them at the town hall debate, but rather used the basic idea behind the question to spring off into a boiler-plate discussion of their particular policy. The ability to ask a follow up question, or call a candidate out on their maneuvering out of a question would have been welcomed. I can see the problems that could arise, getting bogged down into one question, not effectively using time, etc., but the possibility of our nation having a real conversation about the issues we face would be worth it. There should be an agreement: rules to facilitate discussion; rules that are intuitive which preferably have teeth. This election is important, and the issues are complex, the debates only serve a small role in this, but every opportunity should be taken by both candidates to effectively present their platforms. And for me, a chart would be helpful.

Sources:

http://thehill.com/video/campaign/262295-tuesdays-debate-moderator-confirms-plan-to-ask-follow-up-questions

http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/110073567?access_key=key-22or579qflh51vnl1a09

http://www.iol.co.za/news/back-page/obama-romney-agree-on-63-degrees-1.1405176#.UILdHDmm3jQ

http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2012/10/two-dc-lawyers-played-key-role-in-secret-debate-agreement-.html

 

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