When I listen to the complaints that follow just about every presidential debate, I'm reminded of the well-worn joke about the Jewish mother who buys her son two shirts. When he shows up at dinner wearing one, she says: "What's the matter? You didn't like the other one?"
If the debate features "issues" questions, as did the "town-hall meeting" format moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw last week, it's boring and predictable. If the moderators focus on political or "process" questions, as ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos did during the primary season, it's slammed as trivial. Time limits? Stilted. No time limits? The candidates filibustered.
So widespread is the discontent that some people are getting desperate. In Indiana's highly competitive Ninth Congressional District, Republican Party Chairman Larry Shickles actually proposed last week that the candidates be hooked up to lie detectors for their scheduled Oct. 21 debate. The Republican and Libertarian candidates said yes while the Democratic incumbent had no comment. Thankfully, debate organizers passed.
I confess that I'm drawn to Shickles' idea, not just because it tracks closely with my own notion of slipping sodium pentathol into the candidates' drinking glasses. It's out of frustration: I have my own longstanding yet universally ignored ideas for better debates. (How about a few topics that no spinmeister could possibly anticipate, like a math question: "A train leaves New York heading west at 8 miles an hour; another train leaves Chicago heading east at 75 mph. How much should Amtrak subsidize them?" Or how about a question that would offer genuine insight into a candidate's philosophy: "Do you like the designated hitter rule?")
Fortunately, there's one last chance this year to see if a presidential debate can really work without resorting to such radical notions. Even more fortunately, my CBS colleague Bob Schieffer has a format that offers a real chance for something both more enlightening and entertaining than what we've seen so far.
So what are the elements that would make this debate work?
The "Knights of the Round Table" format is better.
Barack Obama, John McCain, and Schieffer will be seated at a table. This is far preferable to the podium format, for both heat and light. It's much harder to deliver well-worn talking points when you're sitting right next to your opponent and a moderator than when you're at a podium, which invites bloviation. It permits Schieffer to look into a candidate's eyes from just a foot or two away and press him for an answer. And, counterintuitive though it may be, it actually can encourage sharper confrontations.
One of the toughest exchanges in a presidential debate occurred around just such a table, shortly before the critical 1984 New York primary, with Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, and Jesse Jackson seated at a circular table while Dan Rather moderated. Mondale asked Hart: "Why do you run those ads that suggest that I'm out trying to kill kids when you know better? I'm a person who believes in peace. ... I think you ought to pull those ads down tonight." Retorted Hart: "Why have you questioned my commitment to arms control and civil rights when you know that I have just as much commitment to both of those as you do?" (It was left to Jackson to urge the two to focus on issues rather than "this rat-a-tat-tat.") This kind of close-in format will also enable Schieffer to tap into the second element that makes for a good debate:
Force the candidates to confront each other with their core arguments.
In the first presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer repeatedly asked the candidates to talk directly to each other, but both repeatedly sidestepped the invitation. The round-table format makes that a much harder offer to refuse. Picture Schieffer turning to McCain and saying: "Your ads suggest Senator Obama is unfit for the presidency because he consorts with a 'domestic terrorist.' Please tell us—and Obama—what about that association disqualifies him?" Or imagine a question to Obama that asks: "You repeatedly predicted that the surge in Iraq would not work—and over time, you've steadily altered your view of its success. In view of all the reports that show dramatic change for the better, will you now say directly to Senator McCain, 'On the matter of the surge, you were right and I was wrong'?"
Quite apart from format, such an approach suggests a third element critical for a good debate:
Encourage the moderator to be assertive, even aggressive, without time limits.
Some of the best political debates I've seen were moderated by veteran New York newsman Gabe Pressman. On the Sunday before an election, Pressman would sit down in an informal setting, armed only with a stopwatch to ensure roughly equal time. There were no time limits, no rigidly structured turn-taking, and if Pressman wasn't satisfied with an answer, he'd ask the question again. Schieffer has already indicated his intention to push for more specific answers ... and this intention will be of particular significance if he is willing to adopt a more provocative role:
If there's an elephant in the room, ask about it.
It's always safe for a moderator to confine himself to "issue" questions, but the result is often a joint recitation of masticated chunks of phrases. Some of the best debate questions are of a very different sort. When CNN's Bernard Shaw asked Michael Dukakis in 1988 if he would favor "an irrevocable death penalty for the killer" if his wife were raped an murdered, Dukakis' ice-water chilly response was a perfect entry into who he was. Another candidate—Bill Clinton or Mario Cuomo, for instance—might have said: "I'd want to kill the bastard myself. But suppose in my rage I wound up going after the wrong person?" That same year, ABC's Peter Jennings began an earlier debate by asking Dukakis to respond to the idea that he was passionless. The candidate's answer was ... passionless.
This coming debate is ripe for such "impolite" inquiries:
"Senator McCain, one of your conservative Republican colleagues in the Senate, Thad Cochran, said about you, 'The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine.' The former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party said, 'Do I trust him with the button? No.' These folks on your side of the aisle aren't talking about political disputes—they're saying you don't have the temperament to be president. Shouldn't that bother voters?"
"Senator Obama, you spent 20 years in a church whose pastor—a pastor you repeatedly embraced and praised—called America inherently racist, embraced Louis Farrakhan, and spread paranoid tales about the government creating AIDS. You worked—a lot more closely than you originally described—with a man who tried to blow up federal buildings and to this day calls himself revolutionary. Why are you comfortable associating yourself with people with such a hostile view of the country you want to lead?"
And finally, if all else fails ...
Take the Phil Donahue "sayonara" route.
In 1992, Bill Clinton and former California Gov. Jerry Brown met on The Phil Donahue Show for a debate. Donahue introduced the contenders—and then left the stage, leaving the candidates, as "Coffee Talk's" Linda Richman might have put it, to "talk amongst yourselves." It was one of the more bracing political debates, especially when Clinton, angered by Brown's attack on Hillary Clinton's law firm work, put a finger in Brown's face and told him, "You ought to be ashamed." The only more satisfying event would have been for Clinton to punch Brown to the floor—thus depriving analysts of their favorite cliché cop-out: "There were no knockdowns."