PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES NEED NEW RULES
Grand Forks Herald
October 12, 2008
Among its other distinctions, the 2008 presidential campaign could make history for this reason: Of those campaigns that featured debates, this one could be the first in which not one of the debates produced a memorable moment and in which every debate is judged a draw.
Unless, that is, the Open Debate Coalition has its way.
The Open Debate Coalition wants the candidates to “change the rules for the last presidential debate to guarantee that voters get the answers they deserve,” the Web site Politico.com reports.
The group wrote the candidates Friday, “pressuring them to change what they called a ‘lacking’ debate deserving of ridicule from the likes of Saturday Night Live.”
And while candidates don’t heed every advice letter from interest groups, they ought to pay attention to this one. That’s because the Open Debate Coalition has a point — a point so strong that it’s accepted by groups on the left, right and in-between.
The coalition includes Republican strategists and consultants as well as the founders and/or directors of such Web sites as Wikipedia, DailyKos.com, MoveOn.org and TheNextRight.com.
For that matter, North Dakota and Minnesota politicians ought to pay attention, too.
The stakes are high in presidential debates, so high that the events have been “game changers” in a fair number of past elections. Those high stakes are part of the problem today. Candidates know that a gaffe will be replayed endlessly, in the manner of former President Jimmy Carter’s infamous quote, “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry.”
So, they play it safe, neither saying anything controversial nor giving their opponent the chance to make a snappy comeback in the manner of former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Judging by this year’s debates, the candidates have that studied, inoffensive blandness down pat.
But the moderators should be allowed to challenge it, and that’s the Open Debate Coalition’s point.
“The closed nature of the recent debates has been universally criticized,” the coalition wrote to the candidates.
“The editors of Politico wrote, ‘The presidential debate commission’s rules are a scandal’ resulting in ‘a format designed to limit improvisation, intellectual engagement, and truth-telling.’ 83 percent of Obama supporters and 75 percent of McCain supporters agree that tough follow-up questions were lacking.
“Even Saturday Night Live spoofed the lack of follow-up questions in the debates, and the watered-down ‘town hall’ questions chosen.”
The coalition offers a number of suggestions, the most important of which is that the moderator be allowed to ask follow-up questions. Assemble a skilled panel of journalists and give them the chance to ask follow-ups, and you’ll have the makings of a meaningful, informative and important debate.
The next debate takes place Wednesday, so the prospect of a rule change before then seems slim. Still, the Commission on Presidential Debates should call for feedback such as the coalition is offering, then make changes to improve the 2012 lineup of debates.
And as mentioned, the organizers of Minnesota and North Dakota debates should listen to suggestions, too.