July 30, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
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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