November 26, 2010
The Case for Real Debates
Before the 2012 presidential campaign hits full stride, let's acknowledge the obvious: presidential debates are a joke. In fact, they have become such theatrical productions that it seems the only actual benefit coming from their quadrennial occurrence is to provide enough fodder for the comedians at Saturday Night Live to sustain their tired program.
That's why it was so refreshing to hear a prominent politician like former Speaker of the House and potential future presidential candidate Newt Gingrich propose dramatic changes to the debate format.
In a discussion with C-SPAN's Steve Scully, Gingrich reasoned, "I think that the candidates and the Party ought to organize the debates [and] not the news media."
Almost instinctively, Scully responded, "Can you do that?" My humble answer to Mr. Scully is of course we can, and if we're serious about saving the country, we will.
The media is in a perpetual competition to put on productions that people will watch -- it's how they make their money. Long-winded, serious conversations about foreign and domestic policy may produce better presidents, but they don't produce better ratings. And consequently, the American people are subjected to such scripted, rehearsed, stiff, and unimaginative exchanges between candidates that it is often difficult to detect any real differences in their ideas or beliefs.
That's not good for the country, and it's why I join with Gingrich (though he was focusing on primaries) in proposing a total revamp to the system. As implausible as I will be told this is, here's my suggestion: in the three months following the conventions and leading up to the presidential election, the two nominees of their respective parties will tour the country...together.
Traveling from state to state, the candidates won't hold private political rallies where they deliver a standard stump speech to supporters, but rather will engage in open exchanges with their opponent in front of large audiences. No moderator is necessary, as the candidates will either take unscreened questions from the audience or pose questions to each other. And while there could be a time limit placed on the entire debate, the candidates will get as long as they need to expound upon and explain their positions in detail. No more "raise your hand if you think the earth is warming" nonsense or, as Gingrich expressed, "you now have thirty seconds to describe your policy on Pakistan."
In terms of the media, it's simple: let them decide what debates they want to cover and what ones they want to ignore...there will be plenty to choose from. But whatever they do, the media will be observers just like everyone else.
So what would happen if we actually saw this type of dramatic change? The truth is that we already know. The famed Lincoln/Douglas debates were modeled in this manner: seven debates, three hours in length, free exchange of ideas, no moderator -- just a timekeeper. What resulted were the most meaningful debates our nation has ever seen between potential officeholders...so much so that we're still talking about them today (do you think in another 150 years anyone will be talking about the great Obama/McCain debates?).
Additionally, a change of this nature might bring a modicum of civility to our public discourse. Locking the two candidates in a bus together would force them to get to know one another and perhaps learn to respect each other enough to keep disagreements policy-based rather than personal.
Finally, think of the kind of candidates who wouldn't survive this gauntlet. By expecting substantive discussions about issues, we would effectively eliminate from contention candidates who are far out of the American mainstream. There is little doubt that had Americans been exposed to Barack Obama's fascination with European-style socialism during the 2008 campaign, his popularity as a candidate then would have mirrored his popularity as president now. Instead, through carefully scripted statements on his teleprompter that revealed nothing about what he really believed, Obama traversed the entire landscape of a presidential campaign without ever being asked to explain what he meant by "hope and change." Republicans should be on board with this idea.
We would also eliminate candidates who are ignorant and unqualified. While bumper-sticker sloganeering, lobbing rhetorical bombs, and rote recitation of a stump speech can be mastered by virtually any political dimwit, standing on a stage for three hours passionately and articulately defending one's beliefs takes someone who is wise, well-reasoned, and intelligent. If Sarah Palin is truly the dunce they say she is, Democrats should be on board with this idea.
So let's call the bluff of our two political parties: if Democrats are serious about preventing "dolts" like George W. Bush from ascending to the presidency, and if Republicans are serious about preventing "socialists" like Barack Obama from accomplishing the same, they should immediately seize control of presidential debates and make them something valuable to more people than Will Ferrell and Tina Fey.