There were so many candidates on stage at the Republican debate last week that even some party officials couldn't identify all 10. The political parties and networks that host the debates don't want to alienate activists who tend to support the long-shot candidates. (And it's not certain that they should eject candidates with nothing to lose—in the Democratic debate, Dennis Kucinich helped push Barack Obama out of his sluggish performance to talk about his views on the use of military force.)
At both debates, candidates had to raise their hands and give answers in a single word or sentence. When they were allowed to give longer answers, their time was so restricted that any insight into how they think or what they believe was inadvertent.
Everyone is to blame for the shallowness of the answers. Candidates don't like being rushed by the short response times, but they also don't want to have to talk for too long. In-depth answers and multiple questions on the same topic force candidates into the spooky land beyond talking points. The networks insist on short responses and use gimmicks like Internet questions and hand-raising to create drama (and maybe news). They'd make the candidates race to tie balloon animals if it would generate a spark, because debates are network branding exercises. The MSNBC logo on stage at the first Democratic debate was so large it could have attracted space aliens (and, depending on your view of Mike Gravel, may have succeeded).
In any case, the upshot is that the debates have been lackluster. This is no way to treat the most important election of the last 80 years. So, how do we fix it? I'd like to run the debates like the Fred Friendly seminars, with candidates responding at length to a single hypothetical situation. The Washington Post editorial page suggested letting audience members vote off a poor performer after each event. American Idol Does Democracy. Or maybe candidates should be allowed to question one another. Efforts to evoke more thoughtful responses don't necessarily have to produce less thrill. There would be considerable excitement, for example, in watching a candidate fumble for words once he or she has been pressed to go beyond mere snippets from stump speeches.
What are your ideas for sharpening and strengthening the debates? Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll put together the best responses and feature them in a future piece. Since we're co-hosting a series of debates in the fall with the Huffington Post and Yahoo!, perhaps we'll even end up using a few of your ideas ourselves.