Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Presidential debates next to useless in current form

(Originally published 12/15/07)

I have sometimes wondered why the general public has little to no use for presidential debates. After all, one of the participants is going to end up being sworn in as the leader of the free world; why aren’t people paying attention?

After the debates this week in Iowa, I know why.

The Des Moines Register-sponsored debates this week were so wanting in form and substance that they were roundly – and rightly – criticized as the worst of the cycle.

(By the way, in their current form, they’re forums, not debates.)

Wednesday’s GOP forum featured one inexplicable addition: Former U.S. ambassador and perennial candidate Alan Keyes. Keyes is known for his special grandstanding brand of unctuous conservatism. I hadn’t heard any mention of him during this cycle until candidate introductions.

Register editor and moderator Carolyn Washburn kicked off the event by telling the candidates that the questions would "focus on issues Iowans say they still want to know more about."

Indeed, Washburn’s first question about the country’s financial situation was "the single biggest issue Iowans of both parties wanted you to talk about," she said. For this most important issue, candidates were allotted a whopping 30 seconds -- each! -- to respond.

It went downhill from there. Keyes predictably became a sideshow, arguing with Washburn at one point about answering a question directed to other candidates and then sounding eerily like my six- and three-year-old

"They had a minute," he whined. "Why do I get 30 seconds?"

Washburn also posed what may be the most useless question in presidential history when she asked the candidates to "please suggest a New Year’s resolution for one of your opponents here today."

Thankfully, most of the candidates had the sense to deflect the question.

The Democratic debate Thursday was much the same. Although Washburn acted less like a grumpy parking lot attendant, the event was exceedingly mundane, even for hardened political junkies like me.

One reason was the (again) inexplicable exclusion of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He reportedly didn’t qualify because his Iowa campaign director works out of his home instead of from a commercial storefront.

(One major cable news network reported late Thursday that its reporters were unable to locate a campaign office for Keyes. Hey, that requirement was arbitrary, but at least the Register wasn’t enforcing it, right?)

And I have to ask: In what world does Keyes, who made his first forum appearance this year, garner more support than the self-proclaimed candidate "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?"

Here’s why Americans don’t have use for these "debates:" They aren’t useful. But wait, I have the solution! Here’s how the powers-that-be can actually make next year’s debates worth watching down the stretch:

Schedule a series of 90-minute policy debates – perhaps 10 or so, roughly one per week between conventions and Election Day – limit each debate to one or two topics, and insist that moderators ask only open-ended questions.

For example, Washburn asked GOP candidates Wednesday for a "show of hands:" Who believes global climate change is a "serious threat and caused by human activity?" Instead of being rebuffed and rebuked by former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, she could have simply asked the candidates to share their thoughts on climate change.

In addition to eliciting a more complete answer, this would give candidates more time to explain their views, and it has the added benefit of eliminating that annoying habit they have of talking past their time limit.

Yes, it will take more time. But aren’t the issues – and their answers, and our choice for president – worth it?

And who knows? People might actually pay attention again.

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