11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ditch The 'Debates' In Favor of Real Debates

Thank Goodness for Tom Brokaw. Without him, a debate might actually have broken out in Nashville. We can't have that, can we? By cutting off Barack Obama and allowing John McCain to get his attacks in unanswered, and by asking his own silly questions, Brokaw helped build a compelling case for ditching the current debate format.

First, it was Jim Lehrer, who did his best Dr. Phil imitation while asking Obama and McCain to look at one another. Who cares if the candidates look at one another? On the Senate floor, senators address their comments to the presiding officer, not to each other. Perhaps he forgot to ask them to give each other a hug.

Then Gwen Ifill let the vice presidential debate get away from her, while asking whether the greater threat is a nuclear Iran or an unstable Pakistan. Finally, we had Brokaw, MSNBC's ambassador to the McCain campaign, acting as school marm/timekeeper when it suited him, preventing actual discussion from breaking out while bending the rules by asking about the non-existent issue of the Social Security time bomb.

Heaven knows what Bob Schieffer will drag out next week when this series comes to its merciful end. Forget trying to figure out which candidate won or lost. It's the American public that lost.

How far have we come? In the first famous debates, 150 years ago, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated across Illinois in the 1858 election for the U.S. Senate. The format was quite rigorous. The first speaker talked for 60 minutes. The second speaker talked for 90 minutes. The first speaker then had 30 minutes to reply. In 1960, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon talked for eight minutes in opening remarks. Now, in order to shield the public from the ignorance of modern candidates, we restrict statements to a couple of minutes, and an answer to 90 seconds, with "discussion" of about one minute.

We should also forget about calling these events "debates." In 1960, the first moderator, CBS Newsman Howard K. Smith, called the goings-on a "joint appearance." He was right. In 1960, with Smith as moderator, four reporters questioned the candidates, with each journalist getting in a couple of questions during the hour. The panel members were either broadcasters, or print journalists chosen by the respective campaigns from the traveling press contingent.

Today, we have a single moderator, a format which has allowed for more screwed-up debates and stupid questions than we ever thought possible. The moderators come out of the relatively small group of Prestigious News Anchors, although their prestige has surely taken a hit the past few weeks after these performances.

Here are two suggestions for reconstructing the "joint appearances." First, consider making them real, honest-to-goodness debates. You could have real one-on-one debates, a la Lincoln-Douglas, in which the speakers alternate debating a topic, perhaps even with question time thrown in.

Or you could follow an academic model, with two-person teams. It would be fabulous to see the presidential and vice presidential candidates up on the stage together, debating with their counterparts and answering questions. In each case, the campaigns would choose a debate topic or resolution, with each side taking turns and each candidate required to speak for 10 minutes or so, with perhaps a question time thrown in.

There could be more than one topic per evening, so that each time could back the resolution (also known as the affirmative team) and one could oppose (known as the negative). Examples of topics: Resolved: that the deregulation of the U.S. financial system has led to the current financial crisis. Or: Resolved: The U.S. should withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months.

There are a couple of variations on this format. The candidates could have a team partner who is a subject matter expert, rather than the other part of the ticket. You could play with the time limits for speeches and questions. Whatever the format, the agreement should be made public, and not governed by secret 30-page memos that look like the contracts rock stars have for their performances and dressing rooms. (Note: this deal supposedly covered how each candidate was supposed to address the other. Presumably, McCain's characterization of "that one" to Obama is breach of contract.)

At heart, a format like this takes the moderator totally out of the debate, except to be a timekeeper, while allowing for a real interchange and in-depth discussion of the issue. The big advantage is that there will be no working of the refs as happened before the Ifill debate, nor suspicious about the political leanings of the moderators, as happened with Brokaw and will happen with Schieffer, whose brother was named an ambassador by President Bush.

Should that format be too boring or restrictive, we could really advance the debate format into the current cable age. In either single-candidate debates, or team debates, the questioners would be identified as coming from each side of the spectrum. Thus, a panel of Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow would question one time, while a Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity would do another. A moderator/timekeeper/peacekeeper would of course be required. Perhaps NFL referee Ed Hochuli would be available.

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