Generally, I think more debates are better than fewer debates. I thought the number of debates in the Republican primary was a net plus for the party. If it weren’t for the debates, Governor Rick Perry probably would have been our nominee, and I’m not sure where that would leave us now. I also think the debates made Romney a better candidate.
There’s no better way in a campaign than debates to hold the candidates responsible for what they really know and what they really believe. The pre-packaged messages from the campaigns are often shaded, vague, and can even be deceptive. Good debates can strip all of that away. And candidates may be less tempted to rely on half-truths in their campaigns if they know they are going to have to be held accountable for their own statements during a national televised debate. Just for fun, what if each of the candidates knew that a portion of a debate would be set aside for him to review and explain exactly what he meant in three or four select campaign ads? I’ll bet that would clean up a lot of sloppy content pretty quickly.
One problem with the current debates is that too often, the media questioners want to be participants, they want to be part of the show, they want to be provocative, and they want a headline. Let’s face it: There are too few journalists doing what the FactChecker Glen Kessler does, and too many journalists who are asserting their own point of view. Instead of the usual media suspects, why not include panels of distinguished, experienced people such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, former OMB director Alice Rivlin, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Erskine Bowles, among others, in these debates? Let some real, experienced pros probe the candidates in front of a national television audience, presenting serious questions and a skeptical reality check of a candidate’s rhetoric and pledges that he will do this or that. And also, let’s stop the gimmicks of questions from the public and questions via social media.
Carter is on to something. Our debates are good and useful, but they can be better. Rather than serve as isolated events, the debates could do more to shape the entire 2012 campaign.