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What the Presidential Candidates Can Learn from Student Debaters

By Julie Heng, Contributing Opinion Writer
Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

We can argue about who won the first presidential debate, but it’s pretty clear who lost: America.

People across the political spectrum and almost all undecided voters agreed: It was chaos. There were 741 aggressive interruptions during the 90-minute debate, which featured spectacle and self-aggrandizement over facts and reasoning.

In light of the overwhelming underperformance of the first presidential debate, and in anticipation of the final one, some have proposed setting new limits on speaking times and giving the moderator mic-muting privileges. Others suggest canceling future debates altogether.

But what if we were to reimagine the presidential debate entirely?

American political debate is often traced back to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in the 1856 Illinois senate race, which were unmoderated and structured so that the first speaker spoke for 60 minutes and the second for 90, before the first had a final 30 minute rebuttal. The first presidential debate, however, did not occur until 1960.

The first presidential debates featured no immediate commentary or post-event analysis. After TV stations finished broadcasting the events, they cut right back to regularly scheduled programming. The goal of the broadcast was to project “the living image of the Presidential candidate — how he looks, what he believes, what is his idea of America's future and its place in the world, and how he will exercise the power of the Presidency,” and the series of four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was considered a resounding success due to a correlated increase in voter interest and turnout.

One study shows that presidential debates from 1976 to 1996 increased voter comprehension of candidate issue positions and personality-based characteristics.

This year’s political debates, by contrast, seem to hinge almost exclusively on entertainment and dogma with superficialities and soundbites (Did you see that fly?). With no live fact-checking and an immediate abundance of partisan hype, we’re left with misleading claims and constant maneuvering. Debates are supposed to clarify positions, not obfuscate them, but a CBS poll found that only 17 percent of viewers found the first presidential debate informative.

So, should we cancel the presidential debates? No.

Instead, we need to re-evaluate the purpose of political debate and find the procedural mechanisms that would best serve those ends.

I propose political debate take a page from student debaters. Yes, it’s time to go back to school.

Student debating societies in America originated in the mid 1700s, centuries before the first presidential debate. There are many styles and formats of academic debate, but all emphasize students’ “breadth, as well as depth, of knowledge […] quick thinking and logical, rigorous analysis,” as the intercollegiate American Parliamentary Debate Association puts it. Student debaters are trained to actively respond to counter points — confront the facts, not sidestep or ignore them. They are held accountable for their incorrect and imprecise facts and cited methods. They are respectful, engage with ideas instead of people, and face repercussions for superfluous interruptions.

Each time I’ve witnessed a student debate, all parties have engaged courteously and come away more informed. One of my introductions to Harvard was the Harvard Political Union’s Democrat-Republican Debate during our Visitas orientation week. Both sides had fiercely different stances on everything from healthcare to immigration. Still, they defended their claims with manners, logic, and evidence.

So, here are some suggestions for the presidential debates:

First, add more structure. Many high school and college debate formats exist, but all mandate specific intervals for speeches and cross-examination. Clearly define the timing and order of each round, and penalize candidates that improperly interrupt or consistently go overtime.

Second, give moderators tools to maintain order. In student debate, the judge cuts off a debater if they go overtime. Often a literal alarm goes off. Ahead of the first debate, moderator Chris Wallace said he intended to “get [Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Donald J. Trump] to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other.’” That was overshadowed by his other goal, “to be as invisible as possible.” Moderators should act like a judge on behalf of the public. By all means, let them cut the microphones or use a buzzer.

Third, allow and expect candidates to challenge claims and address concerns brought up by their opponents. Debaters are expected to target and overcome “points of clash,” as well as use factual data backed up by solid methodology. We judge them on their own claim as much as their capacity to deal with their opponent’s. In office, the president cannot just sidestep national challenges; let’s require those who want the job to directly respond to their opponents’ points during debates.

To be sure, we should not hyperfixate on the assignment of winners and losers. As political spectators and voters, we should heed Cicero’s advice in “On Duties”: “We should consider as enemies those who take up arms against us, not those who want to protect the republic in the way each judges best.” In this case, let us find a common enemy in flawed logic and faulty evidence.

Debates must prioritize the integrity of truth. If we limit politicians’ opportunities to fall back on ad hominem attacks and well-timed emotional stories, the voters watching won’t be as embarrassed for their country. In the future, perhaps debates will feature live independent fact-checking or roleplay scenarios to test a candidate’s ability and imagination to respond to an unexpected international crisis. But for now, we need to re-evaluate why we watch presidential debates, and what we expect out of them. Debates should highlight fact and reasoning, not enable hand waving and reality show behavior.

Those vying for our country’s highest office should look to student debaters for inspiration.

Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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