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January 04, 2008

A Real Debate?

Tomorrow night, ten presidential candidates will gather in Manchester, N.H for back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates. Many around here have pooh-poohed the modern debate format. There are several problems:

(1) Too many candidates on the stage.Why should we entertain the hopes of Alan Keyes or Dennis Kucinich when there is no chance that they will be nominated?* It is quite possible that letting these folks continue merely to "raise issues" unnecessarily damages the viable candidates and quite certain that they distract from the real contest.

(2) Not enough interaction between the candidates. Once upon a time a debate took place between two or more people. It looked nothing like the question-and-answer format embraced by the legacy media, which isolates the candidates from one another. The use of separate podiums adds to this problem. This is related to the third problem:

(3) The moderator is too much in the spotlight. Moderators too often give in to their inner media demon and end up taking attention away from the candidates. In part, they're having to prove to their bosses that they were worthy picks to moderate a debate. The result is uniformly bad though diverse, and includes things like vapid gushing ("Pearls or diamonds?") and gotcha questions ("Raise your hands, gentlemen.").

(4) The format seems designed to cut off debate. The candidates are instructed to watch for the yellow and the red lights telling them when to shut up. It's artificial and leads to just what we'd like to avoid: sound-bite answers, as candidates try and spit out the outline of an answer before the light goes red. This is done in the name of fairness, since it wouldn't do to allow one candidate to have more time than another.

Well, morons, Charles Gibson has heard our plea. For Saturday, he is trying something new:

"I'm going to put a question on the table, and to the extent that I can, I'm going to disappear," he says. "It's not about me. It's not about showing I can ask a clever question. It's about them."

The ABC anchor, who admits to being nervous, will be in the extraordinary position of quizzing both Republicans and Democrats in back-to-back debates Saturday night, with just a few minutes separating the two 90-minute sessions. The showdowns are scheduled on the heels of the Iowa caucuses and three days before the New Hampshire primary.

"This is sort of a high-wire act," Gibson says. "I could fail miserably with this."

Among other things, Gibson plans to have the candidates seated in a semicircle, the better to foster what he likens to a dinner table discussion. "Every debate I've watched, they feel very Balkanized behind the podium," he says.

There will be no blinking lights or artificial time limits, with Gibson meting out what he calls "fair time" based on clocks tracking the candidates' performance. And ABC's strict criteria for participation could mean as few as four contenders of either party onstage -- a crucial winnowing for the first prime-time debate to be carried by a broadcast network this season....

Gibson plans to devote the first 45 minutes of each debate to three big topics -- different for each party -- and basically let the candidates go at it...

For the next 30 minutes, Gibson and Scott Spradling, an anchor at WMUR-TV, the ABC affiliate in New Hampshire, will quiz the candidates in more traditional fashion, with rebuttals allowed. The last 15 minutes will feature questions tailored to individual candidates, with no rebuttals unless someone is attacked by name.

That winnowing has already taken place. Duncan Hunter, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel have been dropped from the debate according to the rules laid out by ABC last week. That puts the Democrats in good shape, with only Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and Richardson on the stage.

The Republican debate will be a little more crowded. The first four placers in Iowa will be included (Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Thompson). Those who poll above 5% nationally are included (Giuliani). Those who poll above 5% in New Hampshire are included (Paul).

I'm hopeful that these will be good debates owing to the new format, though as you know, I like seeing the candidates squirm and squabble on stage. Your mileage may vary.

Sadly, I already have plans tomorrow night and so am going to miss the debates. You'll take notes for me, right?

*One possible reason is that it gives them a chance to "try-out" for a vice presidential slot. I think the opposite is true and possibly a good thing: it gives the bottom candidates a chance to disqualify themselves in the eyes of voters and the eventual nominee from being selected as running mates or cabinet members.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 01:24 PM

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