Whether the debate happens tomorrow night or not, if anyone thinks we are going to have a sort of Lincoln-Douglas series because of the "new rules" they'd better think again:
Before negotiations with the campaigns began, the plan was for the two formal debates (the third is a "town hall" format) to focus on nine questions, with nine minutes devoted to each. Now, each topic will still be allotted nine minutes -- but not for focused debate. Instead, the candidates will begin each response with a two-minute statement, which, freely translated, means two minutes from their stump speeches. That leaves only five minutes for discussion of any topic -- just long enough to offer the merest start of an exploration of complex issues such as, for example, conflicting explanations for the success of the military "surge" in Baghdad.
The Commission on Presidential Debates called these rules "a breakthrough in the history of televised debates." And the commission and the political parties speak of these craven modifications as if the public interest were their overriding concern. But to do well, a candidate need only memorize enough statistics and one-liners to fill 45 minutes -- essentially what many college students do at exam time. No wonder these debates are likely to disappoint politically aware viewers and fail to enlighten those who watch out of a sense of duty.
It's a pity. Just a few changes in format could transform these unrevealing, visually static and technologically backward shows into genuine must-see TV.
Read on for a list of excellent suggestions. I particularly like this one, but they're all good:
Let's not pretend that viewers have followed politics, economics and war as closely as professional journalists and news junkies -- a third of our citizens still believes that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. Use the video screens to showcase incontrovertible facts: "The U.S. national debt is now equivalent to about 65% of the nation's gross domestic product." Then have the candidates discuss: "What does that mean to you? To your kids? What would you do about it?"
Nobody knows if the debate will happen tomorrow. If it doesn't, Obama is planning on being there anyway and he'll hold a town meeting anyway. The networks should tell McCain that if he doesn't show up, they'll show Obama's town meeting in prime time. Everybody's spent a lot of money and time preparing for the event and he's canceling it as a political stunt. He shouldn't benefit from that.
Besides, the Republicans are the ones who insisted on repealing the fairness Doctrine. They don't believe there's any obligation for broadcasters to provide the public with both sides of the argument. As ye sow, dudes.