I have an amazing idea about how to stage a presidential debate on TV that I'd like to share with you. It came to me while watching the 90-minute live debate on the special edition of This Week With George Stephanopoulos Sunday (Aug.19). I think it was George vs. the 10 Republicans or Democrats. I have seen so many debates lately, I am coming down with the "It's Tuesday I must be in Belgium" syndrome.
Now I remember. It was George vs. the Democratic Repertory Company.
Stephanopolous is the latest to join the race for moderator of the year, an expanding field of candidates who will soon outnumber the number of presidential candidates. Compared to Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann, among those I have seen so far, George has the most winning personality. His smile is like a cobra's as he delivers a trick question
The epiphany came to me while watching George trying to foment a debate between Hillary and Obama with his opening question. A fight would lead to clips, which would make the other news shows that day and night, making it sound like a real debate had actually transpired.
Tell us what you what you think is bad about Obama's lack of experience, George's opening question, in effect, began the debate. A few of the candidates were allowed to answer, before the moderator cut them off with a Stephanopoulos' line that will live in the annals of debating, "Let's move on." (It sounds better in the Ancient Greek)
His other memorable contribution to the art of rhetoric on TV is "yes or no?" "Is that a yes or no," he would say, interrupting a major policy address that didn't quite answer his question.
George is tough that way. But in his eagerness to keep a debate moving on, he was short-changing many of the candidates. The one question that he gave all the candidates a shot at answering, so we viewers could compare answers and choose who we liked best, came from an e-mail, which actually interrupted a fairly interesting discussion between several of the candidates about how to get out of Iraq
"Do you believe in the power of prayer to affect events?" the e-mailer asked.
Each candidate got to speak on that issue. Dennis Kucinich put it best:
"I was standing here for 45 minutes, praying that you would call on me."
What the Representative from Ohio didn't seem to understand the job of the moderator is to prevent real debates, the most effective showstopper being the dumb question.
None of Stephanapolous' questions in the first two of the special This Week debates rivaled Keith Olbermann's stunner while hosting the AFL-CIO Presidential Candidates Forum in Chicago with the seven leading Democratic candidates on MSNBC and XM Satellite Radio on Aug. 7. Some people are still wrestling with the problem posed by Olbermann as to whether or not our future president should receive Barry Bonds in the White House. I don't think I'll be able to cast my vote until this issue has been clearly addressed by all candidates for the office. But it's still too early for any moderator to rest on his laurels.
The incredible idea mentioned earlier about the solution to the TV debating problem came to me while I was talking to Roger Ailes the other morning. As usual, I was bad-mouthing the post-Socratic method of these so-called debates. They have gone beyond glorified press conferences by diminishing the role of the correspondents. A single fellow from the Des Moines Register during the ABC News debate Sunday looked like he was playing Charlie McCarthy to Stephanopolous' Edgar Bergen, opening his mouth twice in the 90 minute show. It's now all power to the moderator, with occasional lip service to e-mail or video questions.
In the wake of keeping the show moving on, viewers are left at sea in their worthy attempt to compare candidates on specific issues, rather than on a gestalt judgment: "I like so and so because he looks honest or looks good in a shirt and tie." Whether it George or Keith, Cooper or the Wolfman, all the moderators come across as more qualified to run the nation's top job than any of the puppets being jerked around in their sound bites.
"Twenty years ago," Ailes was telling me about an alternative proposal, "I said that if I was running for president, I'd call up the other guy and say let's have a debate. No moderator. No questioners. We'll get a studio. Two chairs. You come in one door, and I'll come in the other. We'll sit down in the center and have a conversation, and we'll debate the issues. The only other people in the room would be the cameramen, and they will take the pictures. We'll sit there for two hours just like two guys in the waiting room at the airport. And when it's over the audience will have to decide who should be the president. That's a debate."
"I said that 20 years ago," the Fox News Chairman said. "Couldn't get any takers."
That's understandable. It's a wild and crazy idea, even more of a radical notion today, coming from the fevered brain of a Bolshevik bomb throwing arch conservative. It's against the very nature of democratic elections, as we know them now, against traditional values of keeping the people in the dark.
Still the plan has merit. My proposal: let's do it just once. Call it an experiment in democracy. Are there two alleged front-runners in either party willing to run the risk to stand up, or sit down, without hiding behind a George? If there are more than two, let them draw straws for the shoot out. The two short straws win or lose, depending on how the crazy idea works out.