Tuned In

Is Hillary Right About the Debates?

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A week before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, the Hillary Clinton campaign is asking for another debate. But this time a different kind of debate:

In the spirit of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we make this proposal: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will participate in a 90-minute debate in an open public forum. Just the two of them — no questioners, no panelists, no video clips. One candidate would speak for two minutes, then the other, alternating back and forth all the way through the debate. Their discussion – not any pre-set rules – would determine how long they spend on one subject before moving on to another.

Sure, it’s a politically motivated idea. Any debate proposal a candidate proposes is politically motivated (as is the Obama campaign’s refusal to date of further debates). But that doesn’t mean they’re all bad. I don’t know if Clinton’s proposed debate would be better than what we’ve seen in the dozens before it this campaign, but it would be different in a way that makes me wish someone would try it.

Namely: if it turned out to be lousy, the candidates couldn’t blame the media for it this time.

This is not to say I agree with the argument that the more debates, the better. I think Obama is right (if for self-serving reasons) to say that there is no point in yet another of the kind of debates we’ve had so far this campaign. I also disagree that primary debates are a reliable way of helping to choose the more “electable” candidate. You could make a good case that, the 2000 and 2004 elections showed, general-election voters at best don’t care who the more technically-skilled, point-scoring debater is—they may, in fact, even dislike strong debaters as seeming too high-handed or pedantic (see Al Gore in the 2000 debates).

But if nothing else, 2008 is showing us that the current debate system is broken, and more and more voters realize it. There’s a sense of general insurrection against the people running debates, who seem more concerned with pushing hot buttons and provoking fights that will make the news the next day than with teasing out ideas. The YouTube debates were a step in the direction of cutting the middlemen out of the debate, but CNN’s hosts inserted themselves as moderators anyway, by choosing which questions to ask.

It seems like the perfect time, then, to try a moderator-less debate. We might well find that we miss the moderators after all, or that the candidates are just as capable of conducting a gotcha debate without the help of network anchors. Maybe a modern Lincoln-Douglas debate would force a more thoughtful discussion, but maybe not—maybe the tone of the debate would automatically be set by whichever candidate decided to go on the attack.

But it would be worth finding out—less for what it would tell us about this primary than for what it would tell us about the debate process. Without the moderators to blame, the candidates would have to find out whether the fault in the debates lies with their TV stars or with themselves.