Game show debate
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated each other for the first time last week. I was able to catch most of it. I was interested in how the “talking heads” on cable TV would interpret the debate.
The overwhelming response from all corners was that Romney “won.” From what I heard, Romney was declared the winner mostly for his superior poise and body language and less for the substance of his remarks.
Exactly two years ago, when Terry Branstad and Chet Culver debated in the governor’s race, I wrote a column about how I disliked oral debates. I was reminded of why I disliked them last week. I won’t repeat all the reasons I gave two years ago, but in a nutshell, the attributes that make a good orator are not necessarily those that make a good president. At the time, I suggested that the candidates engage in an online forum, where they would have more time to craft their answers.
After having a couple of years to think about it, I’m not sure that many people would read through such a written exchange. I’ve been thinking about other ways that we could judge a candidate’s ability to be president. An economist at George Mason University named Alex Tabarrok has suggested that the debate could be turned into a sort of game show, which would be both fun to watch and indicative of each candidate’s skills.
The ability to negotiate is an important skill for a president. Unfortunately, this ability is never shown in debates because of their confrontational nature. Tabarrok proposes assigning each candidate a couple who wants to get divorced. The candidate’s job is to get the couple to divide their assets in a mutually agreeable manner, or better yet, to decide to stay together.
John F. Kennedy’s favorite game was “Diplomacy,” a board game in which players attempt to conquer each other’s territory on the board by making deals with other players (whom they later stab in the back). Tabarrok suggests this would be a good test of the candidates’ ability to bargain. I agree, although we wouldn’t need to make them play Diplomacy specifically.
Monopoly is another good bargaining game and one that more viewers would be familiar with. To make the contest more modern, the candidates could play “Settlers of Catan,” which requires players to trade with one another in order to build their settlements and cities.
Often overlooked in the campaign is the role that advisors play in a president’s decision-making. What’s important in a president is not necessarily how smart he is but his ability to pick out smart people. This ability could be tested by making the candidates play a game similar to “To Tell the Truth.”
In the game show version, four celebrity panelists are presented with three people, all of whom claim to be the same person with an incredible story. The celebrities ask the three contestants questions about their experience and at the end they vote on who the real person is and who the impostors are.
In our candidate version, somebody who is an expert in a field, such as economics or foreign policy, would be joined by two amateurs who pretended to be experts. After asking the three people a series of questions, the candidates would have to select the bona fide expert. This will tell us whether the candidate can spot genuine intelligence.
What do you say, voters?