Picture this: You tune into a presidential debate, knowing you should, knowing it’s your civic duty, but also knowing all you’re going to get is a bunch of canned responses from politicians who’ve been practicing their speeches. Will you learn anything new? No. Will you get anything you can’t get watching the “biggest debate gaffe” highlights the next day? Nah.
But then they wheel out a piano and a microphone, and they tell the candidates it’s time to tear it up.
With American debate formats in desperate need of a shakeup (and more viewers), here’s what I propose: Steal the best part of the Miss America pageant and add a talent competition.
Performing arts moments from politicians have provided some of the most authentic human moments of the past few decades. In 1974, then President Richard Nixon showed off his piano skills accompanying diva Pearl Bailey; Bill Clinton won points by playing his saxophone on TV; and Barack Obama is known for singing at crucial moments, whether on the campaign trail or while delivering a eulogy.
“It speaks to the idea that what we want to see in political candidates is some element of spontaneity and surprise, because we so rarely see that,” says Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate expert and professor emeritus at Northeastern University. As for a debate with a performance element, he says: “I think people would watch it in droves.”
Of course, such a competition would disadvantage certain candidates — those who never cultivated any performing talent. But the playing field is always unequal: Some candidates are better-looking than others, some are smoother than others, some are quicker on their feet. Any debate format disadvantages some people. Besides, as Miss America has shown, it’s OK to get creative about what the talent is. In 1955, Miss Maryland packed a suitcase onstage, so if Joe Biden wants to break out a University of Delaware cheerleading routine, that wouldn’t be too far-fetched. Or maybe he’s got some secret shredding skills.
Another drawback is that a talent competition would take up debate time without giving the voters much meaningful policy information. Unless someone sings a song about “Medicare for All” (which would be a tacky move and against the spirit of this exercise), it’s just a way for certain candidates to charm voters. But if it brought in more viewers, it could potentially keep them around for the substantive parts of the debate. And forging a human connection with voters is a key aspect of the presidency as well. “I think those moments endear politicians to the audience,” Schroeder says. “I think it humanizes political figures who can seem so dry and furious all the time.” As for who might be disadvantaged in such a contest, Schroeder says older and more traditional politicians might struggle to break out of their shells, but he thinks Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg might really shine in a talent competition.
Of course, to really test candidates’ skills, the challenge should be that they have to put on a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical together without fighting — but perhaps that might be seen as pandering to voters from the Sooner State.
In case the debates really do adopt this approach — please, please, please think of how much more watchable they would be — here are a few suggestions for how they could catch the public imagination. Some of them are easy: Buttigieg is such a talented piano player that he’s joined the South Bend Symphony Orchestra (and Ben Folds, when he performed with them) onstage. Sen. Bernie Sanders released a short folk album in 1987, and while it’s mostly half-spoken Sprechstimme, it’s still incredibly heartfelt.
Michael Bloomberg has appeared (always as himself) in several films and TV shows, including 30 Rock and Law & Order, so perhaps he can do a monologue — something folksy, like Our Town. And we will personally pay whatever must be paid, and make any deal with any devil, to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s one-woman-show retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life (Bailey can cameo).