A glorious opportunity was squandered on Sunday night when politics as usual proved too much for democracy as required. Who knows if the nation is better off with a dozen or so candidates for president vying in what ways they can to be on a stage with their confreres trying desparately to keep being there as polls and primaries come and go. But when at last we are left with two, at that moment the country has a chance to find out who in fact these contestants are and what they are made of. But instead on Sunday we were presented with a most watered-down, sanitized, and moderated version of what might have been.
If the candidates agreed on the format that was produced, that is their failing, but even in the face of such an agreement, one of the candidates needs to have the guts or the presumption to short-circuit what was planned and demand what was called for, two hours of mutual cross-examination. I suggest that Bernie Sanders should have said this:
Moderator: “ Sen. Sanders, let’s begin with you,” etc
Bernie: “Let me say, with a certain apology, that I did not come here tonight to answer your questions, Jake, though that is a good one that Joe and I may choose to address. I came here to ask questions of Joe Biden and for him to ask questions of me. I would like us to be involved in a probing conversation that is mutual, honest, and fair in all respects. I would ask you moderators to keep time but otherwise stay out of it, except perhaps to express an opinion as to whether one or the other of us is not answering some question that was asked and maybe in the second hour, to suggest a topic which you believe is more important than those we have chosen up until then. I will further suggest as a guide post, that answers should begin with a “yes” or a “no” unless the format of the question dictates otherwise and then an explanation if it is required. I think 10 minute segments directed by one of us and then the other makes sense, but if Joe has a different idea, I am amenable to it. We should proceed in that manner until we run out of time. I appreciate that I am not adhering to the rules we agreed upon; but in my opinion a vibrant democracy is more important. I will begin right now if it is okay with Joe, but maybe we should first address my duplicity in agreeing to one format and then reneging on that understanding. Do you not agree, Joe, that the candidates should choose what they want to press their opponent about and address those issues that they as leaders think are the most important?”
What is good about cross-examination is that it puts the respondent in the position of having to answer the question and paying the rhetorical price when they do not. The mutual nature of this proposed system gives each debater the ability to frame premises in exactly the words they choose, being assured that a yes or no, with explanation as necessary, was on its way.
It might have gone like this:
Joe, we represent two wings or tendencies within the democratic party, the progressive and the more moderate. Do you agree with that characterization?
Can you tell us which parts of the goals of my platform you disagree with?
For example do you believe health care should be a matter of right in this country as you said on television last week?
How is that view consistent with leaving 10 million Americans uninsured as your program makes explicit on your website?
Would it be fair to say that you would like to have tuition free college for all Americans who want it? And universal free child care?
Do you agree that your support for the Green New Deal translates into to a far less aggressive economic program than what I have proposed? In essence the difference between $1.9 trillion and $16 trillion?
Can you explain why your program is so mild in comparison? What do we disagree about?
And that last question is the heart and soul of the benefit of a mutual cross-examination debate; it should be, and, better than any other format known to man, is designed to delineate agreement and disagreement, as one classic form of question employed in cross-examination is: “you agree that…”