I get the sense, at least so far this year, that presidential debates are more important than ever. First, we had the trouncing of President Obama by Mitt Romney in the first debate, which abruptly reversed months of polling momentum and remade the race completely. The following week, Joe Biden’s performance in the vice presidential debate against Paul Ryan was, depending on one’s point of view, either a sustained, supremely satisfying 90-minute explosion of the Democratic id, or the unhinged ravings of a madman.
Meanwhile, in non-presidential races, we’ve seen multiple debates between the Massachusetts Senate candidates that took on an argumentative tenor akin to that of UFC cagefights, while two Congressional candidates in California (Democrats, both!) nearly came to blows, mid-debate.
It continues tonight, with the second debate between Obama and Romney. But exciting as the debate season has been, I don’t feel like we’ve truly embraced the true possibilities of the presidential debate format, either when it comes to entertainment, or in terms of showing us how the candidates would perform as president.
So I’ve come up with a few new ways candidates can square off in future elections. And yes, I realize that every detail, from the dates to the formats to even the size of the podiums, of presidential debates are negotiated down to the letter by the two campaigns—the full agreement for the second debate was leaked this week—and this is done in such a way as to mitigate embarrassment and/or risk on the part of the candidates. Let’s just pretend, for the purpose of this exercise, that negotiators in future elections are feeling a bit more adventurous.
1. The Wild Card Debate. In one presidential debate, every single question is about issues that haven’t yet come up in the campaign. I would so love to see Obama and Romney asked questions about drug legalization, the morality of drone strikes, crime policy and economic inequality, all issues of some import that have been completely off the radar of the presidential campaign up to this point.
I’d also love to see various foreign policy questions about countries and regions of the world that haven’t been in the news in years. There were no questions in the 2008 debates about, say, Libya, but wouldn’t we have been better-served if there had been?
2. The Roast Debate. Candidates can get pretty nasty with each other in these debates—but because they have to make a case for themselves at the same time, that often mitigates just how vicious they can act. But what if the nastiness came from someone else?
On the recent first season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, the show-within-the-show’s anchorman (Jeff Daniels) proposed a Republican primary debate format that consisted of the liberal moderator, essentially, lobbing insults at the candidates. We were meant to vilify the RNC representative when he rejected the idea out of hand, but why not bring it back, on a bipartisan basis?
In this format, candidates are asked loaded, totally unfair questions in the voices of their most vociferous political opponents, with someone like Sean Hannity asking questions of the Democrat, and Keith Olbermann of the Republican. Because if the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that dealing with vicious, bad-faith opposition is a huge part of being president.
3. Lincoln Douglas, Redux. Newt Gingrich may have run one of the more loathsome presidential campaigns in recent history, but he had one very good idea: a return to the Lincoln/Douglas debating format. Let’s just have the candidates argue nonstop for 60 or 90 minutes, speaking in easily delineated five- or ten-minute periods, including cross-examinations and rebuttals.
4. Seth MacFarlane, Debate Moderator. Sure, it sounds like it would never happen—but you could’ve said the same thing about MacFarlane hosting the Oscars, and that’s happening. He could even use a different silly voice for every question.