09/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To "D" or Not to "D"... as in "Debate"

Yes, Senators Obama and McCain will be meeting in three presidential debates that were scheduled before either of them won their respective party's nominations, but should they engage in more?

In November, 2007, The Commission on Presidential Debates, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan corporation that has been sponsoring and producing presidential debates since 1987, chose September 26th, October 7th, and 15th as the dates for the 2008 encounters, committing the eventual candidates in advance.

In May of this year, before Barack Obama even secured his own nomination, Mark McKinnon, an adviser to John McCain, floated the idea of a series of additional debates in the town hall format. At that time, Obama, still locked in his own campaign battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton, said "I think it's a great idea," but those debates never happened.

In this week's issue of Time, Joe Klein opined that Obama should take on McCain in more debates, reasoning that "Obama has command of more facts on more issues than McCain does ... [and that] Obama's demeanor will show well on the debate stage; McCain's feistiness may not." Last month, Adam Nagourney, The New York Times' political reporter, observing that Obama is running a "safe, take-few-chances campaign," opined that Obama should not participate in the town halls, reasoning, "Why risk putting him in a position where he could make an error?"

I agree with Klein. After all, taking risks is a job requirement for the presidency, and the very act of choosing to expose oneself to jeopardy demonstrates that quality. Furthermore, standing up to an opponent to assert or defend one's opinions in a public forum demonstrates the courage of one's convictions.

There are countless factors that affect every political election and, given the extreme level of noise and static in this year's campaign, we are experiencing more than our fair share; but there is one more factor that is a subtle constant in any contest for leadership: empathy. Evolved from the Greek word for emotion, empathy refers to shared or vicarious feelings (as distinct from sympathy, which is more about pity, and implies separate, rather than mutual feelings), but the sharing is involuntary.

The public responds to a leader's demeanor involuntarily. Some attribute this reaction to psychology: parent and child; some to anthropology: the leader of the pack; some to neurology: recently-discovered brain cells, known as mirror neurons, cause humans to respond in kind to what they perceive.

In political terms, the electorate responds positively to strength and negatively to weakness. Think of the patrician John F. Kennedy versus the uptight Richard Nixon, the charming Ronald Reagan versus the homespun Jimmy Carter, or the charismatic Bill Clinton versus the dry Bob Dole. Barack Obama's strength is his speaking style; John McCain's is his military and legislative background and bearing. I say bring the two men face-to-face and let the chips fall where they may.

As Joe Klein states it succinctly: "Two candidates stand on a stage in debate: they talk; you decide."