The presidential and vice-presidential "debates" are awful. The bloviating is excessive; the substance is minimal; and the moderating is bush league.
Virtually no one has been satisfied with the debates so far -- except perhaps Barack Obama's campaign staff. The less substantive and contentious the debate is, and the less interesting the discussion -- the better it is for the political front-runner, but not for the American people.
Obviously, part of the problem is procedural. We have moderators who seem more interested in squelching than in promoting real disagreement. We have formats that rule out the genuine give-and-take of an organic debate.
Imagine, for instance, how Sarah Palin would have performed if she had been called for ignoring questions and challenged for her repetitive canned generalities. Or, imagine if the presidential candidates each had 15 minutes to make their respective cases, followed by five-minute rebuttals and a question and answer period in which both could respond to each other. We might actually learn something about the candidates, other than their skill at dodging controversy. Rather than seeing these prospective presidents be forced to operate outside their own comfort zones, all the voters see are candidates doing their best to stay within their debate preparations -- hardly "presidential!"
However, the biggest failing of the three contests so far is substantive. For all of the noise and fury of the campaign, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain agree more than they disagree. Both support the $2 trillion succession of federal bailouts of anyone remotely connected to Wall Street or the housing industry. Both support an expensive, imperial foreign policy, in which the U.S. subsidizes its wealthy friends and attempts to remake failed societies.
Additionally, both support massive regulation in the name of fighting climate change. Both backed warrantless surveillance of Americans' phone calls and email. Both believe in endless energy subsidies and regulation. Both spent most of their careers opposing increased drilling for oil and natural gas at home. Both want to increase the size and expense of the military -- at home and abroad.
Even their differences are distressingly small. Both would stay in Iraq for a time; they just argue whether the occupation should continue two or four years, or some other longer period of time. Sen. McCain used to join Sen. Obama in opposing tax cuts. Now, as a candidate for president, Sen. McCain says he is for them. To his credit, Sen. McCain wants to cut pork, but that is only about $18 billion in 2008, compared to the $2 trillion worth of bailouts that he supported.
There is one more debate scheduled, and it desperately needs another voice: An alternative candidate to challenge the false, but shared, assumptions of Senators Obama and McCain. The political establishment has bungled America's foreign policy and wrecked America's economy, but refuses to accept responsibility for its mistakes. The conventional wisdom has failed, but the two establishment candidates will talk about nothing else.
Add Bob Barr to the upcoming debate and open up its format, and I promise that the American people will enjoy a real debate that is focused on the issues. We will talk about substance, not fluff. And the American people will learn that they do have a genuine choice on November 4th -- a candidate committed to making real change in Washington.