So much self-serving spin attaches to modern presidential debates–especially since the hijacking of the organizational process by crudely-corrupt Commission on Presidential Debates–that it is almost impossible to clearly identify a winner.
Broadcast media long ago replaced serious analysis with the banter of paid partisans, all but guaranteeing that–now that John McCain has decided to participate–Republicans will mark it for McCain and Democrats will declare it for Barack Obama.
After a week of wrangling about domestic economic issues that got so intensely convoluted that the debate itself was jeopardized, the real challenge for both McCain and Obama has suddenly become one of balancing the announced theme of Friday’s session–foreign policy–with the desired discussion of booms, busts and bailouts. If either candidate seems too inclined toward dialogue about Pakistan or Georgia, he will be accused of being unconscious of the current crisis. On the other hand, overly ambitious attempts to steer every answer toward talk of foreclosures and executive compensation will bring charges that the offending contender lacks the capacity for the sort of multitasking that is required of thoroughly modern presidents.
What to do?
Instead of engaging in the ridiculous conceit of having opposing candidates come up with “shared principles” for resolving the economic crisis–about which a conservative Republican and a progressive Democrat ought to disagree–McCain and Obama should agree, man-to-man, on a plan for a relevant debate.
Moderator Jim Lehrer has already signalled that economic issues will be on the table.
So why not agree to delay the necessary foreign-policy debate and go for it?
And why not adopt a format that allows for a serious discussion–as opposed to the political preening that has passed for presidential debating in recent decades.
Obama and McCain could borrow a page from the first broadcast debate between contenders for the White House.
No, not the 1960 televised debate between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat John Kennedy, but the 1948 radio debate between a pair of candidates for the Republican presidential nod, New York Governor Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen.
That year, before a May primary in Oregon, Dewey accepted Stassen’s challenge to debate.
The two candidates agreed to address a single question that at the time seemed rather pressing: Shall the Communist Party in the United States Be Outlawed?”
Dewey and Stassen agreed to a format that opened with the candidates making a twenty-minute statements outlining their divergent stances. They then had eight and one-half minutes each to rebut one another.
The debate was broadcast nationally and captured the imagination of the electorate far beyond Oregon, in no small measure because the two Republicans differed on the issue. Stassen argued for banning the party in those dawning days of the Cold War. Dewey countered that “this glib proposal to outlaw the Communist Party would be quickly recognized everywhere as an abject surrender by the great United States to the methods of totalitarianism.”
(Dewey’s appeal to reason may have helped him win the Oregon primary, and perhaps even the Republican nomination although, despite the Chicago Tribune headline of the following November, he did not ultimately defeat Truman.)
The debate was a huge success, attracting a massive audience and rave reviews.
“The radio program of the past week clearly was the debate between Gov. Thomas E. Dewey and Harold E. Stassen on the subject of controlling communism,” wrote Jack Gould in the New York Times. “The lively if indecisive pro and con between two of the Republican candidates for president was far and away the most arresting political broadcast in many a day, one which conceivably could be copied with profit for the voter during the formal campaign this (year).”
But could it be copied with profit for the voter in 2008?
What would happen if Barack Obama and John McCain agreed to address a single topic Friday night?
What if each candidate was asked to: Outline the appropriate response of the federal government to the current economic downturn take?
What if the Democrat and Republican accepted a format that allowed each candidate to move beyond standard soundbites to deliver twenty-minute statements detailing their views, followed by rebuttals of eight-and-a-half minutes each?
It is doubtful, to be sure, that Obama and McCain – who are, after all, the CEOs of campaigns that take in and spend more money than most multinational corporations — would have the flexibility required to even entertain the prospect of veering off script toward a serious economic discourse. But these are extraordinary times. And this is an extraordinarily unsettled presidential race. If either McCain or Obama was willing to be bold, it would be hard for the other to remain unmoved. And it might still be possible to give America a debate worthy of the moment, and of the republic.