Debates Worthy of The Name?

Washington Matters

Debates Worthy of The Name?

Forget the endless debate over when and how Hillary Clinton oughta get out. Skip the superdelegate count. The most interesting thing to happen in this campaign in weeks -- and what would be the biggest change in nearly a half century in how we elect presidents -- cropped up over the weekend.

John McCain and Barack Obama are seriously considering a series of joint town hall meetings over the summer. If they pull it off, they'll be giving voters the kind of discussion and back and forth that would be fitting for what has long been described as one of the most significant and consequential presidential races in decades.

Since the groundbreaking televised showdowns between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, presidential debates have grown into agonizingly stilted affairs, with every ground rule carefully negotiated to disguise weaknesses and protect the candidates from game-ending gaffes. The result is not a debate so much as an exchange of carefully rehearsed sound bites.

But the ideas proposed by McCain and being seriously entertained by the Obama camp would change that dramatically. There evidently would be few rules and no moderators, with questions coming from the audience and/or the candidates themselves. That means a much less predictable agenda and more opportunity for serious conversation. Sure, the candidates would still uncork planned soundbites, but a candidate who tried to play it safe and stick to a script would run the risk of appearing flat and unadventurous at best and uncertain and hesitant at worst.

McCain's suggestion does much more than shake up accepted debate format. It threatens to change the entire campaign calendar. Debates are usually held in October, preceded by months of the candidates trying to define themselves and their opponents, largely though shallow and misleading television ads. With town meetings beginning in a matter of weeks, however, McCain and Obama could begin a candid discussion far earlier. While many Americans are already cringing at the length of this campaign and may see the forums in that light, more meaningful discussions may actually provoke broader interest and get the public to pay closer attention.

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And what an appropriate year to do so. The country has long faced difficult, seemingly intractable and even scary problems that repeatedly are addressed limply and vaguely or not at all. In a race that has long promised to be historic and different, wouldn't it be refreshing to actually see the nation's priorities and choices discussed frankly and openly by thoughtful leaders who are promising to try to tackle them in entirely different ways?