Civilized debate pleases some; confuses others

My biggest concern with presidential debates, not only in 2011-12, but for at least the last eight years, has been the frivolity of many of the questions to the candidates from the panelists. I expected much of the same on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 with the NBC – Tampa Tribune – National Journal debate. When I saw Brian Williams as the primary questioner, I became even more leery because he is often a screamer (compare the volume of his newscast to that of Scott Pelley on CBS). Additionally, he can be very frivolous  as we see every several months when he appears on Jon Stewart and they romanticize and fictionalize about their lives in New Jersey.

But Williams moderated the debate in a way that gave it the proper gravitas and thoughtfulness that has been missing in most recent debates. As described by Paul Begala in the Daily Beast,

Brian Williams gave Romney and his competitors a chance to discuss issues without the cheering, jeering, booing, embarrassing crowds we have seen in prior GOP debates. Without the roar of the crowd, Newt was much less effective. Like all bullies, he feeds off the mob. But tonight, at the urging of Williams, the crowd was mute and Gingrich’s faux fury, so effective in prior debates, never materialized.

Williams pursued; didn’t attack. He was inquisitive rather than belligerent. He recognized that the debate was about the candidates; not about him. He was flexible enough to bend or break the rules of the debate when light, as opposed to heat, was being emitted from the give and take among the candidates.

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, offered further insight:

In past forums, the attacks would have elicited howls, cheers, or even boos — disrupting the flow and giving Gingrich the type of energy and break in discussion to jump in. On Monday, Gingrich was left flailing.

Following the debate, a Gingrich spokesperson offered the following gem:

“I also think the prohibition for no clapping was kind of un-American. What if you went to a baseball game and they were like, ‘No cheering after a big play,'” asked Gingrich’s top spokesman R.C. Hammond.

I wonder if Gingrich would apply the same standard to a religious service. He is very proud of what he calls the forgiveness that he has received for what we might politely call overlapping relationships (and is that happening again?). If Gingrich’s priest said something with which he or others in the congregation disagreed, would he use the baseball game analogy and endorse booing. Maybe he gets confused because there is a certain similarity in the way  umpires and priests dress.

Stein summarizes the “quiet and respectful audience:”

But it was nothing like the earlier forums. For weeks, political observers have been marveling over the impact that these debates and their raucous audiences have had on the course of the Republican primary race.

In addition the guidelines for civility from the audience, the format for the journalists was helpful in elevating the dialogue. Williams asked all the questions during the first hour and then the last fifteen minutes. This structure allowed him to follow-up when necessary and move on when desirable. There were not dueling egos among network correspondents.

At the beginning of the second hour, he turned the questioning over to two serious print journalists. One was a reporter from the Tampa Tribune, appropriately named Adam Smith (noted by Brian Williams as fitting for a Republican debate). He has covered local politics for ten years and was very knowledgeable about issues unique to Florida.

The other was Beth Reinhard from the National Journal. She is particularly familiar with south Florida, having written for the Miami Herald for eleven years and the Palm Beach Post prior to that.

Several things were remarkable about Smith and Reinhard. First, they didn’t play to the audience (not that Williams did this night, but it has become somewhat de rigueur in other debates). Second, they focused on issues that would be of particular importance to Florida voters such as a post-Castro Cuba and protection from environmental mishaps such as the Deep Horizon. Third, they gave equal time to Rick Santorum and Ron Paul to speak so that it was not just another chapter of Mitt-Newt-gate.

Perhaps most importantly, Williams, Smith, and Reinhard all asked their own questions. There were none of the “what’s in it for me” questions from the audience or the frivolity from Facebook or Twitter.

Initial reviews of Monday’s debate are mixed. Some appreciated the more cerebral and thoughtful approach; others missed the consequences of audience participation. Regardless of what happens in the future, a model has been set for serious and low-keyed discussion. It certainly is my hope that similar formats take place as we move deeper into the election season.