Why can't debates be more like talk shows?
Like a large number of Americans, I watched last night's vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden with great interest. And, like most Americans, I was interested in the debate for reasons other than finding out about each ticket's policy views. I wanted to see Palin and Biden screw up. Big time.
Unfortunately (heh), both did fine. Palin spoke in complete sentences that more or less made sense, even if they didn't answer any of Gwen Ifill's questions; Biden didn't ramble on or say that FDR was the president during the stock market crash of 1929. But I don't know if you can attribute this debate's gaffelessness on the poise of the candidates alone. The format of the debate was so restrictive, it didn't give either of them time to go off on screwy tangents.
Wouldn't it have been better if both could just sit in a couple of chairs and speak freely? You know, like on a talk show?
I've never understood why presidential debates aren't conducted this way. Think about it: no time limits, no restrictions as to who can talk. Just two candidates talking issues and responding in a fashion that isn't designed to elicit talking points or sound bites. It would make the candidates look more human and relatable to the American public.
However, over the years, the various presidential campaigns have been afraid that their candidates will hang themselves if given an open forum like this. So in even the more casual-looking town-hall-style debates, there has been time limits and very little in the way of cross-talk between the debaters. Viewers come away just as ill-informed on the candidates and the issues as they were going in, craving a debate where the candidates just talk like people, not quote machines. That's where a talk-show-style debate would help.
There is a precedent to this kind of debate: for years, Meet The Press has been conducting debates between Senate or House candidates in crucial states. The debates were always informative, because Tim Russert always asked his usual pointed questions to each candidate, tried his best to not let any candidate filibuster, and made sure both candidates were heard and could respond to the other. Even the debates during the primaries were in a much looser format, mainly because the sheer number of candidates left little time for one-at-a-time speechifying.
So who would moderate such a debate? Of course, Russert is no longer with us, and a format like this would need a similarly strong moderator (although one of the best of these sort of debates, the 1993 Al Gore / Ross Perot debate on NAFTA, was conducted by Larry King, of all people). Bob mentioned a number of good candidates in his list of his dream debate moderators; if you take the talk show format into account, I'd add folks like Brian Williams, Chuck Todd, Campbell Brown, Matt Lauer, and the entire panel of The View. Hey, don't laugh; they may be annoying, but they asked John McCain more pointed questions in a recent appearance than Jim Lehrer did during the entire first debate.