Let's Make It Interesting
The format of the presidential debates was announced today. There will be three presidential and one vice-presidential debates, all 90 minutes in length and all moderated by establishment journalism types: Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw (presumably filling in for the late Tim Russert), Bob Schieffer. The first presidential debate will be on national security and foreign policy; the second a "town hall" format where, in theory, anything goes; and the last one domestic and economic policy. (The details of the one VP debate will be finalized after the selections are announced.)
I guess one could play the DC pundit game and think about who is advantaged how by the items on this schedule: McCain's expectations will be higher for the first debate, Obama's for the last, McCain might have an edge in the town hall format or at least thinks he will, and so on.
But really, fuck that. With few exceptions, the debates are as predictable and dull and staged as everything else in our politics. And, once again, they fall during the baseball postseason--which means that a big chunk of the country won't be paying attention or (as I remember doing in '04 with the Twins/Yankees ALDS), flipping back and forth. More and more, I wonder (and I'm far from the first to suggest this) if the dismal quality and scheduling of our political discourse is intentional in how easy it becomes for most Americans to disengage from the whole circus.
So I'm thinking, as I did during the primary season (and might have written about here), that we need to sex up the debate formats. I honestly believe there are ways to do this that would be enlightening for the voters as well as entertaining for the audience. Here are my proposed debates:
1. Time's Yours Debate: A two-hour exchange in which any topic is fair game with minimal moderation, in which each candidate has a total of 50 minutes, with the moderator and commercials accounting for the other 20. The candidate can use his/her time however they see fit--but when it's gone, it's gone. This would showcase the candidates' multi-dimensional decision-making and prioritizing: given the matchup this year, McCain might want to use more of his time on foreign policy since he perceives that as his strength, but if he totally neglects pocketbook issues, he knows the media types might call him out on that afterward. An added wrinkle: with the time constraints still in effect, the candidates directly question each other for the last hour. Do they use it on (loaded) questions or lengthy answers? Do these decisions help or hinder?
2. Tag-Team Debate: A two-hour "team" battle in which each candidate can bring two advisers to the stage with him/her, either to whisper advice or offer additional answers. This would give some insight into the sort of people the potential president would call upon for support--and whom they would want to put forward in front of the country--and also by inference how they make those decisions. Given how important teamwork and cohesiveness are once the candidate takes office, I think this would be fascinating, offering both a preview of who might serve in the Cabinet or informally as advisors and what sort of internal leadership the would-be president might show.
3. Japanese Game-Show Debate: This isn't exactly what I'd call it, but I like the name. It's a town hall format with a twist: both candidates have to take a shot every 15 minutes, on-camera, through the two hours of the debate. The first hour is radio-only; the second hour is live TV. Also, in the second hour the questioners are replaced by ringers: third-party candidates and other high-profile public figures identified either with public service or a particular issue set (David Gergen, Lance Armstrong, etc). In addition to being just fucking great TV, we'd really get a chance to how the candidates respond in a volatile situation with many variables--like the White House is.
(Only problem is that this would advantage either more serious drinkers or larger candidates. And it would be embarrassing if somebody barfed. Maybe it would be best to replace the shots with that zero-g simulator astronauts train with, though I guess the vomit risk might still be a concern.)