Our Presidential Candidates Should Debate as Fearlessly as the French

In France, they really know how to let politicians swing at each other.

Any time we look to France for anything, we’re in trouble. But that’s exactly what we should do for our presidential debates. In France, candidates immediately take off the gloves, aggressively sparring with each other from start to finish. Their sharp exchanges clearly illustrate differences, giving voters a true insight into their prospective leaders. Unlike our completely scripted affairs in which candidates simply regurgitate tired talking points, a free-ranging debate provides an in-depth look into personalities, style, knowledge of issues, and, most important, how candidates perform under intense pressure. There is little wiggle room because each participant has the ability to directly question—indeed, cross-examine—his opponent, putting him on the spot, live, in front of millions.

Whether or not the French like their candidates, they absolutely know where they stand. We don’t.

The modern-era debates in America are restrictive, timid affairs with a ridiculously short time allotment for answers (usually 60 seconds), and even less time for “rebuttals” (30 seconds)—barely enough time to take a breath let alone discuss solutions for the most pressing issues in the world. Each candidate directs his answer to the moderator—not the opponent who made a charge or accusation. And if, God forbid, two participants do engage each other, discussion is usually cut off immediately.

Part of the problem is that too many moderators think of themselves as celebrities, wanting to stamp their imprimatur on the event and placing themselves on the same level as the politicians. They’re forgetting that their purpose is to report the news—not make it, and that people tune in to see their leaders, not those asking questions. This is akin to a referee who feels it necessary to become such an integral part of the game that he affects its outcome.

We all remember certain moments of recent debates: George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch as if he had someplace better to be; Al Gore invading George W. Bush’s personal space and deeply sighing during Bush’s answers; and Ross Perot just being Ross Perot. But these things would have barely mattered had the candidates been able to directly engage each other.

When fireworks do erupt, the result is always positive. Take a 2008 Republican primary debate in New Hampshire. The only meaningful exchange came between Congressman Ron Paul and Governor Mike Huckabee, with each unleashing a passionate discourse on the Iraq war strategy and whether to bring the troops home. FOX News did the right thing by allowing the two candidates to question and rebut each other, even after time expired, and both men’s responses were met with loud applause. For the first time in that debate series, both sides of this contentious issue were truly represented, and any viewer who couldn’t discern the candidates’ positions should have been subject to a literacy test at the polls.

Yet that productive and respectful discussion was completely lost on both networks and sponsors, and formats have not changed to encourage such clashes. Also lost is what virtually every focus group says after every debate: “We were disappointed in all the candidates because they were short on specifics and skirted around the tough questions … we don’t really know where they stand.”

Maybe that’s because we’re asking candidates seeking the most important job in the world to explain solutions to vexing problems in one minute, while contending with more colors than the Department of Homeland Security’s Threat Level (with moderators usually flashing green, yellow and red to show the remaining time, followed by a bell).

And if you’re expecting a moderator to expose a candidate’s political two-step, keep dreaming. Most simply aren’t that capable.

In truth, the candidates and their parties are most guilty for the lack of spirited debates for one simple reason: They don’t want them. Why? Fear. Fear that their candidate will make a mistake when talking off the cuff. Afraid to deviate from a decades-old playbook that, in reality, never worked very well. And sadly, scared to take the risks necessary for a candidate to become a great leader.

The biggest irony is that Americans are desperately seeking a candidate of conviction to step forward and boldly challenge the status quo, one not afraid to flub a line or actually have the guts to say, “I don’t know” to a question. Voters will forgive a gaffe or an awkward moment so long as they believe the candidate was genuine in his answer. Speaking from the heart, while imperfect, trumps a calculated, memorized answer every single time. Guaranteed. After all, if a candidate is too scared to talk directly to his own people, how can he effectively face world leaders in time of crisis?

The next president will preside over one of the most tumultuous and dangerous periods in all of human history. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to demand that these candidates really debate each other?