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Opinion Debates long on style, short on substance

George HasaraI don't have a dog in the fight but I agree that Romney was “best of show” in the first debate. It's interesting, that as soon as a presidential debate is over, the pundits huddle and declare a “winner.” It's immaterial what is said, but how it is said. Style trumps substance. If the debate seemed scripted, it was, and in more ways than most realize.

Since 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates has conducted the presidential and vice presidential debates, having replaced the League of Women Voters as the host of these quadrennial events. While the CPD may sound like a governmental entity, it is non-profit corporation, founded and run by the Democrat and Republican parties. Part of its mission statement is to “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” In reality, the CPD serves as a firewall to prevent unscripted questions and alternative points of view.

The CPD doesn't outright ban the inclusion of alternative or third parties in the debates, but raises the bar so high as to make their participation extremely unlikely. Libertarian candidate, the former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson, is on the ballot in 47 states. The Green Party's Dr. Jill Stein has garnered enough ballot access to at least mathematically, have a chance in the election. Their voices and viewpoints won't be heard. They didn't meet the threshold of 15 percent in five “approved” national polls – polls that often don't even have them listed. The last alternative candidate included in a presidential debate was Ross Perot 20 years ago. Of course it helps to be a quirky billionaire to get a grassroots campaign going.

Though called debates, they resemble synchronized press conferences. Each candidate is trained in their talking points. Predictable questions trigger well-rehearsed scripted responses. Sometimes the answers bare little or no correlation to the actual questions, but style, tone and smoothness of delivery is what scores points. The structure and format of the debates insulate and protect the two major parties. The CPD describes itself as “nonpartisan,” but it should read “bipartisan.” The key prefix of “bi” indicates a choice of only two. And, the “two” certainly want to keep it that way.

Even with exclusion of third party representation, the debates could have a lot more bite to them. For starters, remove the rambling. If a candidate has two minutes for a response, then limit it to two minutes by cutting off the mic when time is exceeded. Except for those who can read lips, the only message conveyed will be poor time management skills. If there's no room on stage for the Green and Libertarian candidates, at least throw them a bone and allow them to submit a couple of questions each. It's doubtful that the answers will be found in Obama's and Romney's respective bag of scripted responses – but that's exactly the point.

Alabama governor and presidential hopeful George Wallace was famous for saying, “There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.” Nevertheless, the two major presidential contenders will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince voters otherwise. I don't know who the “winner” will be in the next debate, but the loser will be the American voter who believes there should be more than just two points of view.


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