I was shocked to see two candidates running for president debating each other on television. It happened Monday on CNN.
Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was debating former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican.
The candidates told where they stood on the issues--at least a few of them-- and explained why.
Viewers were free to make up their own minds about the candidates. They could decide who was dodging the bullets, who was obfuscating or prevaricating and who simply didn't know what they would do if elected. People could weigh whose plan was superb, whose stunk, whatever.
Holy Lincoln-Douglas! I found myself thinking. This was what they used to call "a debate!"
My god, how long has this been going on?
Of course, it was taking place at 4:45 PM on CNN, not exactly prime time. And both candidates had to face the Darth Vader of presidential politics, Wolf Blitzer.
The forum for what could well be a historic moment in American political discourse was "The Situation Room," Blitzer's private domain, a trophy room lined with stuffed heads of previous "gets." Hardly, a neutral site those candidates' handlers always demand for participation in the political process. .
It was stunning to see presidential candidates without the eight or nine other members of their Chorus Line ensemble, sitting their alone, naked, if you will, facing a potential candidate from the other party, should they emerge victorious.
Was this the start of a revolution in debating, something that is considered by politicians unthinkable since 1972 when the League of Women Mothers, I mean Voters, invented the glorified press conference format? Will the heavyweights also consent to sitting down for face-to-face debates? Or is this just something the also-rans will do in desperation, a Hail Wolf pass thrown before they throw in their towels, claiming the usual money problems?
Is this the start of a new trend? Will it catch on? Or will their party leadership denounce Richardson and Huckabee as traitors, having opened the door to free discussions, a breakthrough in educating voters? Surely the politicians will come to their senses.
Still, I couldn't get my mind around the thought that candidates were actually facing each other alone. Well, almost alone. They still had to face the Wolfman.
As usual, Blitzer dominated the debate. He showed his grasp and understanding of all the complex issues he raised by his own questions, and generally seemed to know more about the answers than either candidate.
Once again, I found myself wondering, what office is he running for? If it is written some place in the Constitution that Blitzer must be the moderator- general of TV presidential debates, there should be a firm statement that he does not plan to run for President in 2008. The last thing in the world we need on CNN is another Pat Buchanan, who has ridden the power of TV to become the Harold Stassen of the Republican Party.
To his credit, Blitzer has introduced a number of breakthroughs in public discourse, such as asking the police line-up of candidates, in effect, "How many believe there is no God? Raise your hands?" It's the sort of thing that will come back and bite candidates in the ankle in the coming attack commercials.
Blitzer has not been the same since Michael Moore gave him a spanking for asking such inane questions in his interview about "Sicko." Moore didn't seem to realize that Blitzer has been declared legally inane.
Blitzer-- who seemed to lose control in the Moore health system debate, looking like he was coming down with the dreaded deer in the headlights syndrome -may be getting tired of his responsibilities in reporting these two very long horse races, as TV news always sees election campaigns. There ought to be a term limit rule in broadcasting, as for the presidency: two elections and you're out. Whether through laziness, self-delusion or a superiority complex, Blitzer has made himself seem essential to a free election.
The only thing worse than the Wolfman as a moderator in the remaining debates, of which there are 36 scheduled before Election Day 2008, would be Larry King. The Great Emancipator of presidential candidates would free them from the shackles of having to answer embarrassing questions about the issues. No rebuttals are required, since there would be nothing to rebut except the usual policy position papers they get away with on Larry's show.
If the debates have to be held on CNN, a questionable premise that I will deal with in a future essay, I personally would prefer the chore be turned over to Jack Cafferty in his shirtsleeves.
Jack is always the highlight of "The Situation Room." His commentaries are always stimulating and provocative, right or wrong, although I could do without those silly e-mail polls at the end. They are unscientific polls which delude people into thinking their opinions are having an influence. They aren't.
Cafferty doesn't suffer fools gladly, as it has been said by some fools. He has a skeptical take on all the issues, a caustic sense of humor fitted for these absurd times. The true acid test for candidates would be facing Cafferty and his shark-like smile coming in for the kill.
I would even prefer bringing back Ted Turner, without whom it would not have been possible, to moderate the so-called debate shows on his network. We'd be better off with a rich, manic-depressive, alcoholic, womanizer running the show than the guys running it now.