I think I can speak for Ed when I say both he and I wish for a campaign that might be a constructive dialogue and serve as a referendum, not just on the candidates themselves, but on their ideas for solving the nation's leading problems. It seems many Washington Post readers share that aspiration, judging by the popularity of E.J. Dionne’s column today on this topic.
But is there anything supporters of greater campaign substance can do to help ensure its outcome? Well, maybe. The one “authority” that might have some influence over the campaign’s dialogue is the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission, a relatively sleepy, bipartisan group, exists to pick the venues for what has now become the standard three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. (Interestingly, debates have become a such an entrenched feature of presidential campaigns that it is easy to forget that there was only one set in the 19th century — Lincoln-Douglas — none until 1948, and a gap from 1960 to 1976.)
But the commission has another function, and it is here it could exert some leverage. It also has the responsibility, in furious negotiation with the campaigns themselves, of establishing all the debate ground rules, such as, topics, format, opening and closing statements, length of answer and rebuttal.
In recent years, these negotiations have led to large topic areas — like a debate entirely on domestic affairs, or foreign policy — and on format gimmicks, like podiums versus seating; questions from the audience or not; the ability of one candidate to ask another a question. These questions matter a lot to the campaigns, but they do very little to ensure a substantive debate. Thus, debates tend to be an important reprise of the overall campaign — focusing on style, gotcha moments, and personality — by no means meaningless, but not getting at the substance of policy.
Here are a couple of very preliminary ideas of what the commission could do to ensure that candidates have to discuss specific ideas for solving the nation’s problems. The commission could require candidates to submit, before of the first debate, a 10-minute, Oval Office-style address about what policies they will announce in January 2013 to put Americans back to work. They would then be asked to submit a similar length speech, in advance, of their plan to reduce the deficit. These speeches would be posted on the commission’s Web site and be available to the public.
In another twist, the candidates would be given the questions in advance for the debate on jobs and debt. Based on their “speeches,” reporters could ask much more specific questions, and these would be known in advance. Moreover, candidates would be given a longer time to answer.
The notion here is to make the debates focus on the specific solutions the candidates can offer to the twin challenges facing our economy: growth and debt. The plan would give them time to explain themselves and to know in advance the critique they will face so they can share their most convincing answers. If they want to spend most of their time attacking each other or speaking in soundbites, they still can, but this format could raise the stakes.
In later posts, I will offer some ideas for the second and third presidential debates. Please share what you think. If we could come up some new and better format ideas, we could start a bit of a brushfire to help stiffen the commission’s spin in their negotiations with the campaigns.