How Bob Schieffer can make this year's final debate interesting.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 13 2008 4:58 PM

Sit Down and Shut Up

How Bob Schieffer can make this year's final debate interesting.

Presidential debate. Click image to expand.
John McCain and Barack Obama

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'?"



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.