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The presidential debate format stinks. We should run crisis simulations instead.

Composite image of US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (L) and Donald Trump (R).
Composite image of US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (L) and Donald Trump (R).
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The current format of the presidential debates is terrible. It tells us nothing useful about how the candidates would operate as president.

Consider what it takes to "win" a debate under the current format: Generally, the "winner" of the debate is the candidate who manages expectations best, the candidate who delivers the best zinger, the candidate who avoids any memorable or telling stumbles (like notably sighing), and/or the candidate whose surrogates do the most convincing job in the post-debate spin room. These are not the qualities that determine great presidents.

If we had a short election season like the rest of the civilized world, debates might be informative. But we've now spent a year and a half dissecting every position and personality quirk of our two candidates. What new information could a debate reveal? What can an exercise in spewing out sound bites and needling each other for 90 minutes possibly tell us that we don't already know?

Or think about it this way: If you were part of a board of directions, and you were down to two finalists for a CEO job, would you bring both finalists in at the same time and ask them rapid-fire questions in front of a live audience? What would that tell you about how they would actually run the company? Is there any company in the world that hires in this way?

Instead of subjecting candidates to meaningless debates, why not try them out for the job of president? Why not run a few crisis simulations, in which candidates work though real problems in real time? Why not let the public see how the candidates might actually respond in the moments when it matters most who is president?

As I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year making the case for crisis simulations instead of debates:

Great presidents make the right calls in moments of crisis. They reason through unexpected problems. They ask good questions and sort new information quickly. They cut through ambiguity and thoughtfully weigh trade-offs. A crisis simulation would test these qualities in ways the debate format obviously does not. We want leaders who can resolve a Cuban missile crisis, not those who will stumble confusedly through a Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Instead of spending the week after a debate arguing over who had the best comeback or the worst gaffe, maybe we'd get the kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking that touches on some of the challenges of actually being president. Maybe voters would learn a few things about the mechanics of the executive office.

In Donald Trump, we have a candidate who keeps promising that he's so intelligent he can solve every problem. A crisis simulation would put this to the test. We could see whether he is actually up to the task, rather than having him tell us he is.

The same goes for Hillary Clinton: Her selling point is that she has the experience it takes to be president. A crisis simulation would help us see what her experiences have actually taught her.

Obviously, it's a little late this year for the Commission on Presidential Debates to do this. A meaningful crisis simulation would take hard work and extensive planning. But it's not too late for 2020.

So as you watch Monday's debate, ask yourself this: What are you actually learning about how either of these two candidates would perform as president? And wouldn't you learn more about their fitness for office by seeing them try out for the actual role?

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