A short-term solution to our political debate problem

If you’ve been following the Presidential debates even as tenuously as I have, you’ve probably noticed that they’re, well, boring. All the candidates are playing to their base because that’s what they think will get them through the primaries and a win at the conventions. Unfortunately, the candidates are right – that’s how our severely broken primary system works (to get a better idea of how bad it is, check out the spat between the Democratic National Committee and the state of Florida over the state’s primary date). But I’ve avoided watching the debates because, as important as the next President is to me, I have better things to do with my time than watch useless political theatre where everyone’s lines have been public knowledge for months.

I get my debate news second-hand the next day, and if someone actually does something interesting, I read the analyses of his (the one “her” in the race hasn’t done much interesting yet) performance and go from there. And considering that the debates take a lot longer than it takes me to read an analysis of the debate, avoiding the debates is a great time management tool.

The fact I feel this way is unfortunate. It illustrates a couple of things, like how broken the primary system is, how burned out I already am on the 2008 elections (never mind how bad I’ll be come primary season), and how neither of the parties really seems to give a damn about the majority of people who want the country to stop being so dysfunctional already.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I read David Ignatius’ commentary today: Debates to Dream About. In it, Mr. Ignatius introduces us to a suggestion made by Rep. Rahm Emmanuel that organizations change how they’re inviting candidates for debates. Instead of inviting all the Democrats (or all the Republicans), invite one Democrat and one Republican to each debate and see how the two party’s ideas stack up against each other. As Mr. Ignatius notes, it would pull the debates back toward the centrist positions that usually win general elections and away from the hyper-polarized positions that usually win primaries, and that would be a Good ThingTM.

There are two other things I think this revised format would do. First, it would give all the candidates more-or-less equal time, so voters would be able to see how some of the lesser-known candidates performed when put up against their ideological rivals. In the process, we’d more effectively (and fairly, given how front-loaded the primary season is) weed out the obviously bad candidates. Second, the voters would learn how the ideas of the two parties stack up against each other. After all, the presidential candidates are (supposedly) the best and the brightest of the two parties, and so the best ideas of each party would be on early display. This would let the voters learn early-on which party was for “more of the ineffectual same” and which party was for “effective change.” And in the process, the candidates that remained would be able to consolidate their policies around the best of all the candidate’s ideas.

This would be a short-term solution to the dysfunctional problem that is the primary process, but it would raise both the level of dialogue and the level of interest at a time when both desperately need to be raised. And that would truly be a wonderful thing to see.

[Crossposted: The Daedalnexus]

5 replies »

  1. Great analysis, Brian. This would serve the public interest in so many ways – it would move emphasis from personalities to issues, it would allow for clear comparison of party positions, it would allow us to see lesser know candidates against better known ones (and discover that being well known may not equal being better suited to be president).

    Now, we need to think about ways of cajoling, prodding, and, if necessary bullying our major political parties into agreeing to do this.

  2. The candidates for President presented to the public by their respective parties are not best and the brightest. They are the biggest a** kissers to their particular party

  3. If you want to make reform seriously interesting to the general population, seed the candidates and throw them into brackets like they do for the NCAA hoops championships. In Rd 1 of the Western Regional you’d have top-seeded Dem Hillary Clinton squaring off with a real Cinderella story, Tom Tancredo.

    It would be a ratings bonanza.

    I’m not helping, am I?

  4. thescoundrel, I’m not sure whether the problem is that the primaries are weighted toward butt-kissers, or whether politicians realize that they have to become butt-kissers in order to survive the primaries. It’s screwed up either way, of course. Oh, and please notice the parenthetical “supposedly” in front of “best and brightest.”

    I have to tell you, though, that if you’re brilliant but can’t handle being in front of a camera during a debate, I don’t want you to be President. If you can’t handle public speaking, or get too flustered when answering hard questions, how well will you represent the United States when talking publically about Iran’s nuclear program, or convincing Russia’s Putin that his Chechnya policies are fanning Islamist hatreds in the Caucasus, or answering hard questions from the press when it’s revealed you had to do something horrible to protect the country? Mental prowess is necessary (IMO), but so is charisma and the ability to think on your feet.

    This is one of the reasons I sorta like/sorta don’t Bill Richardson. He’s got some great ideas (like his energy plan), and I can tell from his website that he’s pretty smart. But when I watched him in front of the camera announcing his energy plan, he sounded worse than Bush. Bush at least sounds personable, if stupid an inarticulate – Richardson sounded smart, but inarticulate and about as personable as a ceder fence post.