Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Last Chance to Reform Debate Format

Two years ago, we put forward a reform proposal for the presidential debates in the 2008 campaign.

Rather than just offer an abstract plan, we decided to present a real format by scheduling a dialogue that included Speaker Gingrich and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo at the Cooper Union in New York City with the late Tim Russert as the moderator. We chose Cooper Union because it had been the site of Abraham Lincoln's great speech that probably made him president, as well as the site of many important speeches and debates since it was built in 1858, and continues to be so to the present day.

There is no doubt that the American public and voters are very interested in this year's presidential and national elections.

A number of haphazard debates were held during the extended primary season which concluded in early June. These debates, without a cogent and effective format, were mostly unsatisfactory, even as they were tuned in by large number of voters eager to learn about the candidates and their positions on the critical issues of our day. But the result, surveying the published and other public assessment of these debates, was that the public who tuned in were mostly turned off.

As we approach the final phase of the presidential election, with the nominee of each party known, and the traditional nationally-televised series of debates of the presidential and vice presidential candidates now being organized by the formal debate commission, we renew our call for a new debate format. There is not a lot of time to do this.

The bad news is that the commission, meaning well, is beset by inertia and lack of of willingness to try something genuinely new.. To change the format would require not only new ideas, but the consent and enthusiasm of the candidates themselves. And it is not only the commission which is overly cautious, but the campaign organizations themselves which are inherently unwilling to take any risks with the entire electorate watching.

The good news is that both the putative nominees, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, are political figures who have embraced the unconventional in their successful campaigns so far, and have personally practiced and advocated the general format we are supporting.

Senator McCain has made the "town hall" format his trademark, and Senator Obama has repeatedly said he favors a "Lincoln-Douglas debate" format. Although these formats have some differences, they more importantly share the characteristic of an open dialogue or discussion of the issues, open in that the format is not overwhelmed by rules, conditions, limits and caveats, all of which have increasingly diminished the presidential debates of the past, and made them less and less useful to voters (and to the candidates themselves).

The key to any change in the debate format is the willingness of the candidates to recognize that an open format is in their interest, and serves their communication purposes. Senators McCain and Obama each have their own strengths, and we think an open format, negotiated by the two campaigns, offers each a great opportunity in the political competition which will conclude in November.

The number of debates, their location, the kind of live audience, all are open to that negotiation. Tim Russert became a champion of an open format demonstrated by the 2007 Cuomo-Gingrich dialogue at Cooper Union when he served as moderator of it. He played his role perfectly, keeping the conversation moving and orderly, but remaining in the background and allowing the dialogue to bloom on its merits.

Senator Obama has now accepted three conventional debates as proposed by the commission, but left open the possibility of additional debates in a "Lincoln-Douglas" format. Senator McCain has not yet agreed to any debate format, not to a specific number of debates. There is still time, then, to negotiate at least one or more debates in a new format.

What greater tribute to Tim Russert's memory could there be than to reform the present debate system for the 2008 campaign ahead (as he advocated), and give American voters an opportunity to watch and hear the candidates in a genuinely competitive format as the critical decison is made to choose out next president?

-Speaker Newt Gingrich & Barry Casselman


-This Op-Ed was first published in Real Clear Politics on August 10, 2008.

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