Candidates Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry go head to head in debate after debate, some that are less than a week apart. (Kevork Djansezian)

I’m all for debates, at least in theory. In a world that covers elections with an attention-deficit media, there are too few opportunities for candidates to delve into the issues at any depth. Debates are one of the few chances for candidates—other than their image-burnishing books or an occasional sit-down on “Meet the Press”—to discuss the important issues of our time in more than 140 characters.

But this early in the campaign season, the debates feel like opportunities to showcase a politician’s ability to grab the spotlight more than his or her breadth and depth of knowledge on an issue. With eight candidates still fighting for attention, their ability to take on everything from immigration to health care to global trade in an hour and a half does little service to the relatively small number of voters paying attention yet. In the debate last week, for instance, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry received most of the air time, and major issues such as education got only two candidates’ responses and just a few minutes’ attention.

Some of it is the candidates’ fault. They outright ignore the underlying issue raised in moderators’ questions. They use other queries to return back to their pet issues. In some cases, they use their allotted time to attack their opponents, rather than lay out their position and fairly draw comparisons to their peers. In others, they engage in such an obvious display of groupthink that it’s impossible to tell them apart.

But even if the candidates were demonstrating real leadership in the debates—putting forward distinctive solutions, calling into question their opponents’ extreme views, reflecting carefully on specifics for reform rather than surface-level talking points—the debate system itself is severely flawed. It is not possible to address the major issues of our time in one-minute answers or 30-second rebuttals. Yes, there are upcoming debates that will focus solely on the economy, for instance. But even if that is the most critical issue in today’s world, why not carve out some of these early season debates for other subjects as well? Is it too much to ask for the candidates to spend an hour or so debating education, and a week later take an hour and a half to discuss climate change?

Maybe so. It’s doubtful the TV ratings would be high, after all, if only a single issue is addressed. But if there’s going to be so many debates, why not use some of these early season discussions for the candidates to hone their positions on major issues with a more robust and in-depth format? We should expect more of the leaders who participate to rise above the grandstanding and use these opportunities to engage in vigorous and specific debate. But we can only expect so much if the system is set up against them.

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