Of course, they won’t really be debating each other.
A formal debate requires 1) a clear understanding of and willingness to adhere to reasonable rules, 2) a skillful moderator who poses questions and enforces the rules, and 3) enough time for all participants to have their fair say.
A debate also addresses a specific question or orderly series of questions, expecting each participant to stay on topic and explain, justify, and champion his or her position.
None of that will happen tonight.
The rules of tonight’s debate — and the contentious nature of political discourse these days — will make it hard for candidates to explain their positions thoughtfully or completely (if they were so inclined):
- The debate is limited to two hours.
- There will be three moderators.
- Participants will have one minute to respond to each question and 30 seconds for rebuttal if their name is mentioned.
- They will not make opening statements, but they will get 30 seconds to make a closing statement, if time permits.
Those rules seem designed to heighten the entertainment value of the debate, not to allow for the thoughtful discussion of policies and positions.
Following the debate media analysts will focus primarily on designating the winner and losers.
I think it would be more profitable to sift through all the racket, quips, and comebacks — all that gets said and unsaid — to ferret out where each candidate stands on three basic issues.
Three Questions to Ask Following the Republican Debate
1. The first question is of identity.
Who are we as Americans? What makes us different from others? Who belongs? Who doesn’t belong? Who are we: our heroes, role models? Who are they: our enemies, pariahs? Who deserves our praise and emulation? Who deserves our contempt?
2. The second question is of values.
What do we value? And why? What actions, policies, and goals deserve our attention, respect, energy?
3. The third question is of vision or direction.
Where are we headed as a nation, a society, a people? Where should we be headed? What are we about? What is the task that lies before us? What will our legacy be? What kind of world do we want to create and sustain and hand on to those who follow.
These three issues — of identity, values, and vision — are the same issues that every leader should be expected to address. Why not the candidates?