June 8, 2007

Can we get creative with the debate format?

A couple days back, my son John IM'd me -- from his bar review class -- a question he had about the presidential debates. Why do they keep the Democrats and the Republicans separated? After I gave my instant reaction -- because we're at the stage where people need to pick one from each group and because the top candidates wouldn't agree -- I made a post about it to see what people would say.

One of our regular commenters XWL said he'd written something along those lines a few weeks ago:
[I]nvite four candidates from each party to bi-weekly debates....

Have each candidate be the "host" for ten minutes at a time, asking questions to the four opposing party candidates. Have a moderator ensure that they don't use their time to ask 9 minute questions full of their own campaign talking points, but instead reward candidates for engaging the other side directly....

By forcing the two sides together as early as possible, that would change the tone of these debates from monologue to dialogue. It would be up to each candidate to decide whether that dialogue should be shrill, informative, cooperative, or combative. This would give the primary voters real information on how these folks would perform come general election time, and it would generate far more interest amongst that big group of independents who sit these things out till the last minute usually.
XWL has another post today, and he notes that Patrick Ruffini just wrote:
With candidates trying to shore up their general election creds, who will be the first to challenge a debate across party lines this year? ... It would be a risky move, and a gutsy one. Think of the huge earned media moment it would be, giving us the excitement of a general election slapdown a year early. It would be a make or break moment for a candidate a few points back looking to roll the dice. If you were looking to mess with the other party's frontrunner by elevating a top-tier challenger, this would do it. And it would teach the voters vastly more about those candidates than the current debates joint appearances can.
That seems to make it pretty obvious that frontrunners won't do it.

XWL has another idea: Have the candidates "send their 'policy experts' and 'advisers' out into the internet to have debates with each other."
When we pick a President we aren't just picking a single person, we are picking a team, and I want to know as soon as possible what the make up of that team will look like. A Bloggingheads type format would be perfect, with dingalinks, and a relatively unstructured time frame. Would Clinton have beaten Bush in 1992 if we had known it would have been a bunch of dweeby munchkins, a few crusty Carter leftovers, and heavily favoring academic over real world folks? Likewise, in 2000 if folks had known Bush was skipping past his father, and even Reagan to pick folks with experience in the Nixon and Ford years, would Gore have won more than the popular vote (although in this scenario I think he would have had a stable of far lefty policy wonks that would make Hillary look like Ayn Rand, so he probably would have lost resoundingly, even against the Bush/Ford/Nixon team).

Could any of the Republicans get Colin Powell to speak on their behalf? Would Clinton be crazy enough to dust off Albright? Does anyone know who Obama's people are or what his cabinet would look like? Does McCain have any friends (aside from a few in the media)? Would Rudy look past the five boroughs for advisers?
Any more creative ideas out there... and good arguments for getting the candidates to submit to them?


peter hoh said...

Does McCain have any friends?

He's got the governor of Minnesota as his new best buddy and potential running mate.

Shawn L. said...

The policy advisors debating each other would only work across party lines. Especially as that would likely pit future co-workers against each other if it was intra-party.

And you're dead on about having to find an all-charismatic cabinet to do the job. But it would be an excellent tactic for a third party. It would multiply the opportunities for press coverage, a precious resource for such races. It would also be a good way of communicating seriousness and use a "man bites dog" story to get attention to their issues.

If any news department had any chutzpah, they'd look to reality TV for inspiration on how to cover the presidential election.

A regular weekly show, that would invite candidates on to debate and speak individually. Pepper the show with actual news from the campaign trail and the occasional profile piece.

The debates would be the "main event" of the show. They'd be between no more than 4 candidates at at time (rotate the candidates, mixing and matching each episode, based on their schedules and willingness to participate)

Then finish up the show with a panel discussion amongst some analysts, as sort of a cross between the Idol judges and the sunday news chat shows.

Hopefully, if the show gets Idol like ratings, the big candidates would participate. But that would probably require the less serious candidates to be weeded out. Maybe not, but at some point (maybe in the first sweeps month in the fall before the primaries start), you'd start eliminating the obvious stragglers. Maybe use Idol like voting, with some objective criteria applied where the more relevant candidates are "protected" against elimination (it would be embarrassing to have such a show's rules eliminate Hillary, for example).

It would have to be done by a news department of a network or cable news channel and not an entertainment producer. To do otherwise would guarantee that such a show doesn't have the ability to be taken seriously and only attract the absolute fringe candidates. It'd be like watching Idol with only William Hung-like "talents"

And when primaries start up, you'll have "Results shows" on the evenings of the primaries, distinguishing that network's coverage as different from the other networks.

To keep things from getting stale, mix things up with an occasional episode focusing on key congressional races, governors races. Or if such a show proves successful, franchise the format so that affiliates have local versions of the show for their own races.

PatHMV said...

I remember thinking that Bob Dole could have shored up support by announcing his cabinet picks early.

Unfortunately, opposition research works with such speed today that no candidate could afford to officially anoint someone else to speak for him. A slip of the tongue or two, and bingo, the candidate either has to put up with a drumbeat of negativity for a week or two or longer, or he's got to immediately toss the poor guy out on his rear. Campaigns are so scripted today because they almost have to be.

But I really like the rotating debaters idea. With a campaign season this long, there's no need to have EVERYBODY up on stage at the same time. And having it cross party lines would be very different and generate a lot of free publicity, at least the first time it happens.

I could see Giuliani proposing that format. He's been doing well in the debates, his main source of support among the GOP is their belief that he can beat the Democrats, and in the debates, he's mostly attacked Democrats rather than his fellow GOP candidates. Also, he suffering a bit right now from Fred Thompson's entry into the race and from faltering on the abortion questions in the debates. Proposing a bold step like this would give him a nice boost, enhance his "leadership" aura.

Luckyoldson said...

want suggestions?

watch the daily show.

Maxine Weiss said...

You're slipping. You know you've been forbidden from mentioning your son, or even alluding to the fact that you are a Mother. It's wrong, and destroys your carefully-crafted persona as urban hip, childless, single woman.

Also, alluding to BarBri--wrong wrong wrong...they don't need the publicity.

Superdad said...

The idea of cross party debates ignores the reality of the primary season. Primaries are not about the general population picking candidates, they are about political parties picking candidates. Our open primary system in Wisconsin (and 19 other states) hides this reality but that is what is going on.

Hey said...

Superdad: Uhhh? Ze Point is to get better candidates out of the system to fix issues in the ghettoized primjaries. Now people have to guess how a candidate will perform in the general, and how they will change their positions to be more mainstream.

John Kerry got the nomination solely because he was "electable", but he wasn't. He wasn't quite as wooden in the primary, and Dem primaries are fairly kind to man-like objects as the performance of Kerry, Gore, and Bradley has shown. The problem was that he wasn't electable and got thrashed during the campaign (didn't lose by much, but the campaign didn't go well). The options weren't much better (Dean?? My Little Pony?), but it might have been more interesting.

Open primaries are a bad idea (see Louisiana) but having inter-party and intra-party debates has advantages in seeing exactly who the candidates are and gives primary voters more certainty as to both performance and policy.

Too many jims said...

Totally unserious idea but with this many candidates on each side how about nice game of full contact "red-rover". Of course the Dems will have to be given some sort of dipensation because the Reps have bigger numbers and girls suck at the game. Come to thnk of it, it would be more entertaining and about as elucidating as the current formats.

XWL said...

Thanks for noticing my post. I think the only way any thing similar to this would happen is if it were imposed as an act of Congress, just have to convince all the Senators who believe they should be President (which I think is about 85-90% of them) that these kind of formats would boost their chances (remind them how long it has been since a Senator or former Senator won the office, that should do the trick), then they could tack on some sort of requirement in a campaign finance reform - reform bill.

(the previous campaign finance reform bill seems ready to be re-reformed again)

The other place to force the issue would be the cable news channels, these joint press conferences they call debates are low rated (the Republican Debates on CNN and MSNBC were beat by O'Reilly in the ratings), and are only watched by political junkies, and bloggers looking for an excuse for drunkblogging (this blog's host an exception, obviously).

CNN/FNC/MSNBC could get together and force the candidates into more interesting debates earlier. The candidates will go where the cameras are. But, the idea of those companies working together on something is pretty silly in of itself.

The battle of policy wonks is a complete non-starter for many reasons. I just like the idea since it would reveal at the earliest possible moment what a new administration would be like. A single person is who we vote for, but we elect an entire team. The earlier we're allowed to know the players, the better.

The world just isn't ready for some ideas.