Tuned In

Breaking: McCain Suggests Summer Series

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We may as well further overextend the metaphor of the morning: if the hit series of the regular season just ended, how do you hang on to the viewers until fall? With summer reality programming!

In a speech this morning, John McCain suggested a series of ten joint “townhall meetings” with Barack Obama throughout the summer, starting next Thursday, June 12, in New York. The inspiration, McCain said, was the never-realized proposal—much cited lately by pundits—that President John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater do a barnstorming debate tour in the election of 1964. (Though as historian Michael Beschloss just pointed out on MSNBC, the proposal was never formalized then, and there’s a good chance JFK would never have agreed to it if he had gone into summer ’64 leading Goldwater heavily in the polls.)

Anyway: good idea, bad idea? (By the way, I’m sure this is a political strategy to seize attention for McCain today—but that itself does not make the idea more or less valuable. Update: And for all I know, the McCain campaign may expect, or want, the Obama campaign to reject the idea, which comes with an awfully short deadline—but again, that doesn’t make this a good or bad idea in principle.) As always, it depends a lot on the details, and I’m sure I’ll post more about it in the future.

On the one hand, I think the value of debates is a little overrated in politics anyway. At least the debates we’re used to—which is why the significant part of McCain’s proposal is that it cuts out media moderators, whom a lot of viewers on all sides have gotten sick of this campaign cycle.

Instead, McCain suggests, vaguely, to “maybe have 200 to 400 people chosen by an objective organization” attend the meeting and ask questions. Among the many issues that finesses, though, is who decides which ones of the regular-folk get to ask the questions.

Which brings me to my first gut reaction: why not cut the voters out of the questioning process too? Not to be insulting, but “regular people,” especially those very interested in politics, can ask useless stunt and gotcha questions too. And as we saw in the YouTube debates, even if some of them have good questions, you’re putting most of the power in the hands of the people who select their questions. Might it not be better to have the candidates simply question one another?

[Update: Obama's campaign counter-offers exactly such a "Lincoln-Douglas" format. Proving that my bias is not only pro-Obama, but psychic!]

Still, I’d watch. For now, what do you think of the idea? And what would you add to it?