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Our Views: A debatable format

Restrictive rules turn candidates’ events into ‘gotcha’ fests for prattling pundits

POSTED: October 21, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Sharpen the swords, polish the shields and oil up the body armor: It’s debate season! Thus, we had the Donneybrook in Denver, followed by the Long Island Town Hall Tug O’ War, and now it’s on to the rubber match, the Battle in Boca.

Two presidential debates down, one to go, and the pundits are vibrating with excitement as the race tightens and the stakes grow larger going into Monday’s final showdown in Florida. Meaning we’ll get even more juiced-up rhetoric from the chattering classes on cable TV. You almost wish we could turn Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews loose as proxies and let them duke it out.

Amid this metaphoric excess, we should pause to remind ourselves what is being contested: Not a mixed martial arts bout, but two men seeking to become the nation’s commander in chief. A serious job, but with a most unserious path they must travel to earn it.

The debate hype is another example of how we turn what should be an intellectual, cognitive decision into bloodsport. But that’s just how we wacky Americans roll; give us a boring exchange on tax rates and trade deals and we’ll make it into Rock ’Em Sock’ Em Robots.

Part of that may be because the debates are generally anticlimactic and uninspiring. The Commission on Presidential Debates (and what does it do for four years after next week?) has set up so many guidelines in effort to keep it fair that it limits the candidates’ ability to sift through the issues at length. Each man gets two minutes to answer a question, followed by one-minute rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. They seldom address each other, except when arguing over whose turn it is to speak. And they usually end up carving their stump speeches into two-minute chunks they deliver as the evening plays out.

Because of this, the contenders seem bent on violating the very rules their campaigns helped negotiate. In the first two debates, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have talked over each other, ignored the moderator, answered questions of their choosing and pretended the time clock didn’t exist. With millions watching on free prime-time TV, they aren’t willing to surrender their chance to chime in, even after the buzzer sounds.

In fairness, both debates, and the vice presidential contest between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, did produce substantive discussions on the economy, taxes and other issues. When the candidates focus on real answers, they offer a strong contrast in where they want to take the country, which is what voters need to hear.

Yet the post-debate commentators (no, it’s not on ESPN) still focus on more trivial matters of style. The buzz from the first debate was about Obama’s lethargy and Romney’s “Big Bird” reference. The veep debate was over Biden’s chuckles and Ryan’s thirst. Last week, it was the “binders full of women” comment and whether the president actually was about to trade fisticuffs with a 65-year-old Mormon investment capitalist with the whole world watching, as if anyone seriously considered that remotely possible.

That follows a history of “gotcha” moments that seem to be all anyone remembers from past debates: Gerald Ford’s brain freeze on Poland, Michael Dukakis’ dead fish reaction to the hypothetical murder of his wife, George H.W. Bush checking his watch and Al Gore sighing. None of that had anything to do with their ability to govern, yet helped torpedo each man’s respective presidential bids.

Why? Couldn’t we just let two smart men who want to lead the nation talk calmly and civilly about what they plan to do if elected? That would go much further to helping voters decide who is best qualified for the job than the touring circus act provided for us now.

The debate gurus should throw out the rules and revise the format: Turn off the clocks and let two men sit — ditch the podiums and get them some chairs; this isn’t Elbonia — and hammer out their ideas without feeling the need to hammer each other. Let the moderator guide the discussion, but without trying to cover so much ground in so little time that answers are cut short. And let the candidates engage each other, not as faux pugilists in a pretend prize fight but as gentlemen having a candid exchange of ideas.

And don’t limit the campaign to three debates. There should be one a week from Labor Day on, a different focus for each. Obama and Romney could do two hours alone on the economy; why cram it into a 90-minute session with a half dozen other issues? One on foreign policy isn’t enough; it’s a big world with many challenges that deserve more attention. And viewers who don’t want to miss the baseball playoffs or fall TV premieres will have ample opportunity to watch over a period of time.

The final season of the TV series “The West Wing” featured a debate between the show’s fictional presidential candidates, played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, in which they agreed to forgo the rules in favor of a free-wheeling discussion. It left viewers wishing the real candidates would be as willing to think on their feet and swap ideas.

Remember that Abraham Lincoln cut his political teeth against Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas in a famous series of debates on slavery in 1858. That oratorical tour de force helped solidify Lincoln’s political future and propel him to the presidency two years later.

And somehow, he managed to do it without Wolf Blitzer anywhere in sight.


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