- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The presidential debate institution, long in decline, has entered its “boutique” stage with major party candidate debates now taking place in Hispanic, black, homosexual, religious/evangelical, social values and other venues. I think the diverse venues are a good thing, and it is positive for the major parties to reach out to constituencies neglected in the past, but I don’t see the quality of the political dialogue and conversation improving as well.

Marvin Kalb and Newt Gingrich have proposed a new system for the nominees of the major parties (and a major third-party candidate if one comes forward) with their Nine Debates In Nine Weeks proposal. This would have one debate a week with the major party nominees in the nine weeks before Election Day 2008. I recently endorsed this because I think the proposed open format is a huge improvement on the rigid and murky format of the current debate system which is really designed to obscure the candidates’ views rather than clarify them.

In response, I received some thoughtful and constructive comments, including some from very experienced presidential campaign operatives, suggesting that, while the Nine Debates idea is excellent in principle, it is very unlikely to be accepted at the nominee level by either party.

That is because, as was pointed out to me, holding nine debates in the nine weeks prior to Election Day would paralyze the presidential campaigns from most of their necessary political activity, and force the candidates and their staffs to spend most of their time continually preparing for the next debate. This would have the secondary consequence, it seems to me, of exacerbating the dependence on TV and radio political advertising, something which already saturates the airwaves at election time. Live speeches and personal campaigning by nominees would be drastically reduced from already reduced levels of recent presidential campaigns, losing further the authentic spontaneity of the final weeks of a national election.

Some might say this is a necessary trade-off, but I don’t think this is so. I don’t think Mr. Kalb and Mr. Gingrich are inflexibly wedded to the original calendar for their idea.

I know that Mr. Gingrich, in particular, is more interested in reforming the process and improving the dialogue than anything else.

So I would like to suggest some changes in the calendar of the presidential debates, and perhaps some tweaking of the structure, without altering the important innovation the Nine Debates proposal essentially makes.

First, I would schedule the debates right after (or if the nominees are certain beforehand, to begin before) the presidential conventions. This is usually a period when campaign activity is reduced and thus public interest wanes. In effect, this would stimulate the national attention at a time that is often neglected by candidates and their campaigns.

Instead of nine debates, I would think about holding five to seven of them. I would not schedule any debates in the three weeks before Election Day, although (if the candidates agreed to it) there could be a final, nationally televised and radio-broadcast debate just before the election to climax the debate process and the presidential campaign itself.

With these changes, I would nevertheless keep the open format suggested by Mr. Kalb and Mr. Gingrich. This is the essential and very constructive innovation they have proposed. The historic Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 have been frequently mentioned, but it must be remembered that the nature of national and local political communication has been drastically altered in the 150 years since then. In those days, a great live public debate was the only way for voters to impartially compare the candidates. There was no television and radio, and virtually every newspaper and magazine in the nation was affiliated with one party or another.

Nonetheless, the principle of face-to-face confrontation by the candidates and their ideas remains the same. The Kalb-Gingrich proposal argues for few formal rules and lots of “reciprocity” (to use the word Abraham Lincoln suggested be the format basis of his debates with Stephen Douglas).

We saw this operate effectively in February, when former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and Mr. Gingrich held a “dialogue” at Cooper Union in New York on the anniversary of Mr. Lincoln’s famous speech there which made him a presidential candidate for the first time in 1860.

I believe these are modest but vitally important alterations to the Kalb-Gingrich presidential debate proposal, alterations that will bring the actual nominees to face each other in a way that will enhance the presidential campaign ahead immeasurably. I offer these suggestions in the spirit of a pragmatic approach to the idealism of how we want to elect our next president.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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