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