Ed and I often agree on the topic he raises in his morning post: the need to connect campaigns to the reality of governing. He is correct that the modern presidential campaign is a series of closed events — fundraisers, briefings and meetings — and public events, mostly set-piece rallies that are repeated from the musical introduction to closing applause lines from city to city. Everything about the candidates' schedules is designed to avoid surprises or make any news beyond the visual of the candidate surrounded by adoring supporters.
Debates are the other main campaign events, and they also fail to allow voters to get a clear sense of what a candidate will do once in office. I have written before about an idea to get the Presidential Debate Commission, a sleepy oversight body, to wake up and take control of the debates' format, offering the candidates the questions in advance and giving them more time to answer. The questions should be harder to dodge and more substantive, such as, “Here is the basic outline of the federal budget. Please fill in how you will allocate revenue and expenditures and tell us why you made these decisions.”
One institution that could help reverse the dumbing down of our campaigns is the media. The girls and boys on the bus know they are watching a worn-out campaign format. And the media know that the campaigns try to manipulate the debate formats as much as possible to limit exchanges and skate over substance. Perhaps the media could cover the traveling circus a little less and spend more time on enterprise stories that dig into the candidates’ plans and philosophies. And perhaps they could, through editorial pages, make the public aware of a more effective and substantive debate format that would require deeper engagement of issues. Given the stakes, it is worth a try.