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July 30, 2007

Presidential Debates, Wrestlemania Style


The historic CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate took place this week, and represented a refreshing change of pace from the monotonous debates that had marked the primary season thus far.

Its unique format regular folks submitting questions via YouTube, answered live by the candidates got away from the monotony of the sort of boring debate season that, for the first time ever, seems to have most political junkies bored a year-and-a-half before the actual vote. It also showed how candidates think on their feet, an important skill for any president.

Was it a gimmick? Sure it was. There were lots of musical bits, and the candidates even took a question from a pair of animated polar bears. But this out-of-left-field, Web 2.0-based idea was a refreshing addition to the political year much better for the republic than the videos of candidate gaffes that had been YouTube's primary contribution to politics thus far.

But if the debates must revolve around a gimmick, why stop there? Here are some other ideas:

1.) Debate Match play. Is there anyone following this election who wouldn't prefer to see a one-on-one debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as opposed to the weekly cattle-calls that the debates have been thus far?

Sure, there's nothing wrong with some of the debates including every candidate, but why not set up occasional clashes between only two candidates? Not only would it be supremely entertaining, and cut out a lot of the noise of those running without a prayer for the presidency, but it would help prepare the candidates for general-election debates.

How about Hillary/Barack this week, followed by Edwards/Hillary next week, and so on? Heck, even a level-headed vs. nutso clash between Hillary and Dennis Kucinich might be preferable to the usual 10-candidate jumbles.

2.) Interleague play. Speaking of preparing for the general election, is there any good reason the primary candidates' debates are segregated by party? Why should the first year of the now-two-year election season be taken up by 10-candidate scuffles in which the participants either agree or disagree by slight degrees on most issues?

I don't see what the problem would be with putting some or all of the candidates of both parties in the same debate. Not only would we get, you know, actual arguments, but primary voters would get a preview of how their candidate would handle combat with the opposite party in the general election.

Yes, this might require waiting until the herd has been thinned a bit. But who wouldn't want to watch a free-for-all with Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Romney, Giuliani, and McCain, all on one stage? Romney, in particular, would have to shift back and forth from conservative to moderate and back literally by the minute, as opposed to by the election cycle.

And yes, I realize this is a bit contrary to tradition. But that's what they said about interleague play in baseball, before it was introduced in the mid '90s. And that system which has led to increased attendance and exciting matchups every year has been a rousing success. Remember how fun the California recall debates were?

3.) The Royal Rumble Debate. Michael Currie Schaffer, writing on the New Republic's web site last month, brought up the bipartisan primary debate idea, suggesting that the parties "learn from Wrestlemania" in setting up their debate format. This got me thinking of an even more radical idea, also derived from pro wrestling The Royal Rumble Presidential Debate.

Here's how it works: the candidates draw numbers from a hat. The first two begin debating one-on-one, and every two minutes, another candidate enters the stage. When a candidate is found to have been thoroughly out-argued on a point (as determined by moderators Jim Lehrer, Chris Matthews and Jerry "The King" Lawler), he/she is eliminated. The debate continues until only one candidate remains, and that man (or woman) is named winner.

I know the odds of this ever occurring are roughly equal to those of Mike Gravel's being elected president. For one thing, it's not too likely either party will take ideas from the WWE, post-Chris Benoit. But tell me it wouldn't be more fun, draw higher ratings, and give us a better idea of who would make the best president than any of the formats that have been tried so far. And it might even encourage candidates to avoid BS answers to every question (no, Mayor Guiliani, there's no reason to mention 9/11 when the question is about whether you favor ethanol subsidies.)

I implore the two parties to give serious consideration to these proposals. Perhaps, by 2012, we'll all wonder how we followed politics before the Royal Rumble Debate. After all, at this time in the last election, none of us had even heard of YouTube.


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