Many Debates in Variety of Venues Would Enliven Race

Posted June 10, 2008 at 3:33pm

The 2008 election is the most interesting, and perhaps the most consequential, in modern times. The challenges facing the country are immense. We face a global economy where American primacy is no longer a given — and where we are failing to commit resources to the kind of scientific infrastructure, education and research that has long been our edge. We face budget deficits that threaten to career out of control in the next decade as government spending grows rapidly and revenues do not. We have a health system that is straining to provide coverage and care to an aging American population. We have environmental and energy issues long neglected by a political process that could not craft long-term policy by swallowing a touch of short-term pain. And we have to fashion a role for a superpower in a world where our military power no longer has the same efficacy that it did before asymmetric warfare and foes that are not traditional nation-states, or are small states with access to weapons of mass destruction. I could add 10 more major problems without breaking a sweat.

[IMGCAP(1)]We know that tackling any of these problems in a serious way will be a heavy lift next year, even if voters opt for big change and get it. Whether it is President Obama with a Democratic Congress with comfortable majorities, or President McCain coping with divided government, the parties will be divided and polarized. The inchoate public demand for change, and for action in Washington, does not mesh with any larger consensus about what action should be taken to effect change.

That is why Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) call for 10 joint town meeting appearances with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is a welcome overture. We need to break out of the normal campaign mode, to have nuanced, textured and honest discussions of these huge problems and issues. Fourteen months ago, in April 2007, I wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal built around the apparent deal that Barry Goldwater and his friend Jack Kennedy had struck in 1963 to campaign in a different way in 1964 — to campaign together on the same plane and hold multiple debates, many without moderators or questioners, all around the country. The idea, of course, faded when Kennedy was assassinated, and now McCain has evoked it to jump-start his plan for town meetings.

Town meetings are a terrific venue; get the candidates together without moderators or journalistic interveners to engage in discussions with themselves and voters. The fact is that the journalists who have moderated debates in the primary process have made the show all about themselves. The questions asked by journalists are usually predictable, dealt with by candidates in the same way they handle news conferences or Sunday shows, and as often as not reflect their life experiences in Cleveland Park or the Upper West Side as the real-life anxieties of working-class people. Real voters can ask unpredictable questions that reflect those real lives.

But town meetings are not and should not be the only venue if we are to get to our goal of a better discussion in the country of what to do and how to do it. Town meetings do not provide much chance for extended and deep discussion on individual important issues with follow-up questions and serious back and forth between the candidates.

What would be wonderful for the country is to have 10 (or at least many) debates with different formats. Some might have an agenda — how about a debate on science, research and development, or one on America’s ability to compete in the world, or one on how America supports and extends democracy in the world (and when and how America intervenes in other countries to do so).

Some of the debates might have moderators — but not the usual broadcast or cable anchors with gigantic egos or personality issues. Some might have experts asking the questions or at least people with unique vantage points — for example, a debate on health reform might be in a mini-town meeting setting with, say, an ER nurse, a doctor working for an HMO, a small-business owner struggling to provide and pay for health insurance for 25 employees, a CEO of a big business facing soaring health benefit costs, a head of a pharmaceutical company, a hospital director, along with a health policy expert and some others with health-related vantage points. Others might be narrow or broad-based conversations, not debates in the usual sense.

When I wrote my Journal piece, I envisioned this system for the fall campaign — I called for nine debates, one a week from the conventions on. I did not want to dis the debate commission, which does a remarkably good job putting together three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate (and Jim Lehrer is light-years better as a moderator than any of the anchors). But three debates take on a heightened importance, and the goal for the candidates as much as anything is to avoid a mistake that could cost an election. With nine or 10 debates or sessions, a stumble will be quickly forgotten, and real, even relaxed, discussion can ensue.

If some variation of this plan happens, it will transform the campaign. And maybe Congress can take a cue from the effort and do its own innovative debates or responses to the presidential candidates, elevating its own discourse from its current low level.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.