I have been fascinated by debates since my high school days, which unfortunately were a very long time ago. I don’t believe it has been so long, however, that the meaning of the word "debate" has changed, although one would not know that from watching the televised presidential and vice-presidential debates.
Webster’s says that the noun "debate" is "the formal discussion, argumentation, and resolution of a motion before a legislative assembly or other public deliberative body according to the rules of parliamentary procedure" or "a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides as a test of forensic ability". As a verb, Webster’s defines "to debate" as "to discuss or examine a question by considering or stating different arguments".
The unfortunate truth, however, is that today’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates, of both parties, have confused these televised debates with lengthy campaign advertisements. It does not seem to matter what question the moderator asks, each candidate has a specific message he wants to get out to the public and that is what he spouts, somewhat like a telephone salesperson reading off their script; if you interrupt them, they simply start over, and repeat their message once again, word for word.
I would dearly love to watch a true debate between the candidates, one in which the moderator would pose a thesis, such as "The healthcare bill recently signed by President Obama must be repealed", or "The wealthy citizens of our country must be taxed more in order to help reduce our deficit". Then one candidate would present his arguments in favor of that statement, and the other candidate would present his arguments opposing that statement.
I think that such a debate would be informative and truly help undecided voters to make up their minds, and perhaps even change some minds of those who previously thought they had already decided for whom they were going to vote. But as it is, these 90-minute to 2-hour displays of competing political commercials do not convince or sway anyone. At best, they provide some entertainment, and perhaps enhance voters' commitment to the candidate they had already decided to support. At worst, unfortunately, they turn the American people off to the entire political process, and drive voters away from the polls.