The recent first debate between Romney and Obama was surprising to many; the moderator has been criticised by people across the entire spectrum for failing to moderate; he's offered a response that he intended to do very little but give the candidates a space to talk to each other; his failure is thus intentional. Lehrer's moderation is an exaggerated and final outcome of the worst failings of the American traditions of political debate; instead of being a structured exchange of views where people respond to prompt and have their responses kept within expectations, it was just an argument for show. I've been hoping to see a move to British Parliamentary debate style here, which would be perfect because in at least some of its forms it would provide for a 4-person debate, bringing presidential and vice-presidential candidates into the process, plus it is judged and controlled by people familiar with debate styles and rhetoric and nudged to be kept close to clear thought; distant from rhetoric and fuzzy arguments designed by psychologists to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Still, even in that kind of debate, and definitely in ours, there's a tension over the appropriate content of political debate; is debate about using facts to press a conclusion, or is it about leading people to value-conclusions? Politics necessarily involve both, with the "argumentative science" of framing occupying the ground between. In theory, science should be capable of providing much of the raw facts needed for discourse (although it can't necessarily say which facts are relevant, and it has an interesting relationship with framing), and it is highly unfortunate that it's possible to do so well in American politics by denying hard facts. Obama stumbled over some facts in the debate, although Romney seemed to be halfway to being Bachmannesque in accuracy, at least in how I read Politifact's checks on what was said. In that function, Obama turned out ahead, although by most accounts he failed badly in communicating and advocating his values, the other major part of debate. This is a general weakness for Democrats; they rarely show up to the debate over the morality of their premeses, leaving them framed as immoral property-denying softies rather than offering their own frames, and allowing themselves an easy defeat in the rhetorical stage; kindness as an exception to a property-fundament system cannot be a complete and defensible ideology. The media generally reported Obama as having lost the debate, using the "convince the masses" as the metric and ignoring the lesser accuracy.
I would like to see higher standards for our debates, and better debators. There is an important role for conservatives to play in our society, at least conservatives of the right kind. As I said in another online discussion, 「For much of its life, American conservativism has expressed two (related) things: caution in social change, and formality in institutions over flexibility. It has also been an expression of "success as a result of discipline and individual merit" rather than "success as a result of nurturing and social fabric". Its perspective, while not rooted in things I want to stress too much, has been a part of American political discourse since our founding, even as the parties that have represented conservativism have changed around several times over the years our country has existed.」; in an unrelated discussion, someone I read recently described conservativism as a preference for existing institutional forms with existing benefit over a push for new institutional forms with unknown benefits; understood that way, political wisdom would be understandable as an appropriate navigation of that tension in a way that advances advocable notions of the public good; political advocacy are not usually well-formed if they are understandable as being entirely liberal or conservative by that metric, and the most suitable positions must be well-informed about human nature, inculturation, and mallability of culture, with both a commitment to fix unrealised ideas of justice and a commitment not to take unjustifiable risks in doing so. This is not the only notion of liberal versus conservative worth using, but it is a powerful one that belongs somewhere in one's philosophical toolbox.