Saturday, February 02, 2008

Debate Format Proposal

For the most part, I have avoided watching the primary debates. I find the policy differences among the Democratic candidates to be fairly small and I am in the unusual position of personally knowing and admiring one of the candidates (Obama), so that I've known for a long time I'd be supporting him in the primary and then voting for whoever wins the Democratic nomination in the general (unless it's Lyndon LaRouche, Zell Miller or Joe Lieberman). But I understand that some number of people tune in for the purpose of making up their minds about which candidate to vote for.

That strikes me as likely to be a frustrating enterprise. The format encourages the exaggeration of small policy differences and efforts at "gotcha" by both the questioners and the candidates. Meanwhile, I suspect that many of the viewers are asking themselves not just which candidate would be the better President---a job that doesn't involve any debating anyway---but which candidate would do the best against the Republican nominee in the general. Meanwhile, all of this applies as well to the Republicans (except to the extent that with two minor candidates---Paul and Huckabee---still in the race, there are some larger policy differences).

So here's the proposal: Once the fields have been narrowed, as they have been now, instead of Dem v Dem and Repub v Repub debates, how about some Dem v Repub debates? A Dem voter trying to decide whether Clinton or Obama would do better against McCain or Romney in the general, would learn more from a series of inter-party debates---Romney v. Clinton; Romney v. Obama; McCain v. Clinton; McCain v. Obama---than from debate after debate featuring Clinton v. Obama. And the Repub voters would learn similar lessons.

Obviously, it's too late for this series of 4 debates before Super Tuesday, and it wouldn't work very well in a larger field---although one could have a single debate with all the major candidates from both parties. If both fields remain open after Super Tuesday, this could easily be arranged. And even if, as seems likely, McCain has the Repub nomination wrapped up, he might want the practice and exposure of debating his November opponent in advance. So, League of Women Voters (or whoever sets these debates up---CNN? Tostitos?) what do you say? How about we mix it up a little?

Posted by Mike Dorf


Paul said...

If you have not already, I would recommend watching yesterday's debate. I think it was the best one I have seen in a long long time. On only one occasion did a candidate slip into hyperbole (Obama, describing Clinton's health care program), and even their it was arguably fair and Clinton did not object to his characterization in follow-up.

I thought both candidates did a very good job of distinguishing the real (and, contrary to your suggestion, not minor) differences in their policies. It is, for me at least, exactly those differences in policy - mainly in health care, tax and foreign policy - that makes Obama such a compelling candidate for me.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl said...

On only one occasion did a candidate slip into hyperbole (Obama, describing Clinton's health care program

You are forgetting when Obama implied that he would be right on every issue the first time around and never suffer from a lack of sufficient or accurate information. That's a tall order even for a Harvard Law wunderkind.

egarber said...

I know this doesn't directly relate to a discussion on debate formats, but I want to mention something about job qualification.

For all the supposed qualifications for being president, it's interesting that being a constitutional lawyer doesn't register more.

Somebody help me here -- how many chief executives have been president of the Harvard Law Review, or have had Barack's constitutional law background in general?

Though it's kind of dull in the bigger sense of what voters care about, I think it's important to have a president who understands the precedents that define the constitution's framework. After all, the president's first oath is to uphold it. It's not good enough for a president to simply do what he wants, concluding that the courts will tell him when he's gone too far; the president himself should think in those terms before he acts. This is a type of "departmentalism" I can get behind (the SCOTUS has the final say, but all branches share ownership of the standard).

Further, this is exactly why it actually might be a detriment to bring a CEO mindset to the presidency. Although the conventional wisdom is that having run a company is a resume enhancer when campaigningfor president, I think it can actually be quite dangerous. CEO's are basically dictators -- they're not bound by constitutional considerations on balance of powers, etc. So it might be that such a skill set reflects a tendency toward focusing fully on the ends without regard to the means. That can be dangerous when we're talking about political power.

Again, sorry to get a little off-topic.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to egarber's interesting question, the Presidents who have known the most about our constitutional law were Madison (who wrote most of the Constitution), Wilson (who had been a critic of separation of powers, preferring parliamentary govt, i.e., a compliant legislature), and Taft (who was a judge and con law prof, among other things, before becoming President, and later Chief Justice). Charles Evans Hughes, another S Ct Justice, unsuccessfully ran for President. Bill Clinton taught constitutional law briefly at the Univ of Arkansas, although I doubt he had the same level of interest in the subject as Madison, Wilson, Taft, or Hughes. It's not clear to me that these examples tell us much about the connection between con law expertise and Presidential success. Madison, who knew more about the Constitution than anyone in our history, was a weak President, nearly losing the War of 1812.

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