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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

No debate on how they should debate  

Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor

Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) partcipate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina.  Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

Anyone out there watch the Democratic primary debate in South Carolina a few days ago and not find it deeply dissatisfying?

One could argue it was the worst we've seen in its lack of decorum and its indulgence in spite and braggadocio. But then you'd also have to admit that these events in both political parties have been trending in this direction. They just happened to hit their nadir in Charleston, and could easily slink under that low bar later this month in Phoenix.

Changing them, however, requires that we understand what we want from them.

TV moderators, with the grudging complicity of at least some candidates, seem to regard the debates as spectacle, provoking the gladiators to rip into each other to satisfy the lust of the crowd until one of them bellows, "Are you not entertained?"

I appreciate a swift and lethal riposte as much as the next armchair critic, but does that showcase any presidential quality we should value? Being able to think on your feet is always a valuable skill but an even better presidential skill would be the ability to analyze a situation calmly, consider the evidence, make a decision that moves the country forward or keeps it safe, and explain the reasons for that action. Sniping is mean-spirited fun when practiced by TV housewives and dating-show contestants, not so much when done by the nation's leader.

The South Carolina debate, like many before it, also fell short in the conveyance of information. For months, we've heard the candidates repeat the same talking points about largely the same issues and raise the same objections to others' same talking points. They're new now only to those who haven't tuned in yet. 

Changing this requires only the will to change it. The solutions are not complex.

If candidates can't voluntarily show respect for one another, make them. Give moderators a cutoff switch on each microphone and instructions to use it.

Understand that a sound bite is not enough time to explain most policy positions — never mind one's loftier hopes and dreams, how one views the American people, one's personal story beyond the platitude of "my father was a [fill in the blank with middle-class cred]." Give candidates two minutes to answer substantive questions. Have a yellow light by the moderator's table flash with 15 seconds left and turn red when time is up, then cut the speaker's mic five seconds later. And don't turn on someone else's mic until they're called to speak.

Reduce the number of topics in each debate to allow for real discussion, and let everyone participate, in turn. And, I'm begging here, ask follow-up questions. That's especially critical when candidates give the same problematic answers to the same questions — like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeating that when his administration "discovered" it was doing too many stop-and-frisks it cut the practice by 95 percent. That doesn't pass the smell, taste, sight or hearing test.

Bloomberg's cuts came after a judge ruled that police carried out the policy unconstitutionally. Moderators should press him on it, point out facts that disprove his claim, and do the same for every candidate.

And add a price of participation beyond polling and fundraising: your tax returns. Change party bylaws to demand them, and if you don't release them you don't get on the stage.

Debates have an important role to play. They can be informative and uplifting, help define voters' choices, and prod candidates to guide us to our better angels. But they've become chaotic and strident, and vehicles for candidates to wallow with the worst of us in a Twitter-like mud pit.

We, and they, need better.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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