Four suggestions for a presidential debate that actually matters

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should debate in Oregon.

I'm a Barack Obama supporter, and I know that the official talking point is that we've already had enough debates, but I disagree.

For that matter, the Eugene Register-Guard - which has endorsed Obama - also thinks there should be a debate in Oregon.

Of course, if the debate is going to be just another boring gabfest about flag pins and imaginary snipers, hosted by another cable-news talking head, well... nevermind.

But Oregon's always been a place for innovative policy, why not some innovative presidential politics?

I have four suggestions...

A debate about science: A group of scientists tried to organize a debate entirely about scientific and technology issues in Pennsylvania. It didn't work out, and Oregon is their Plan B. (Hat tip to Darrel Plant.)

After all, many of the major challenges facing our country and our world in the 21st century are rooted in science. Let's hear the candidates talk about global warming, the food crisis, the human genome project, stem cell research, basic research, renewable energy, regulation of the internet, space exploration, bioterrorism, patent abuse, the water crisis, and more.

The best person to moderate a science debate? Former Vice President Al Gore. You can bet he'll stick to real issues, and I can't think of a better person to talk about the intersection between government policy and science.

A debate about the West: A major reason that the DNC moved the Nevada caucus up to the front of the line was to get the candidates talking about Western issues. But it didn't really happen. Last November's Las Vegas debate was just another debate about national issues.

We have a chance to try again. A debate about the West would include discussion about water, land use, rapid urban and suburban growth, property rights, challenges facing the Pacific Ocean, public lands, immigration, mining and ranching, the Pacific Rim economic area, and more.

The best person to moderate a Western debate? Former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, who sent Howard Dean a ten-point memo on winning the presidency through a focus on Western issues back in 2005. (See my January 2007 post at WesternDemocrat.com.)

On the jump, two more ideas...

A no-moderator debate: Hillary's call for a 90-minute Lincoln-Douglas debate is interesting, but I suspect it won't make for a compelling discussion. Each candidate would just rehash their stump speeches.

Here's what I would propose: A 60-minute debate featuring five 12-minute segments - each on a different topic. No rules, no timekeeper, just two people having a conversation at a table.

Without a moderator, there's tremendous pressure on the candidates to behave politely. If one becomes a jerk, the remaining undecided voters (and superdelegates) will punish 'em.

What five topics? Health care, energy independence, national security, climate change, and the economic challenge posed by China.

The policy problem debate: Let's be honest - the skills required in a debate (glibness and quick thinking) are not the skills required for a successful presidency (clear deliberative thinking, leadership, ethics).

Years ago, Senator Mark Hatfield suggested that rather than a debate, we test the candidates by presenting them with a difficult policy conundrum. They'd have four hours to work with their advisors to develop a plan - and then they'd be asked to present their proposed solution. Give 'em maybe 20 minutes each to make a presentation - and then face questions from a panel of journalists familiar with the topic area.

That might be the hardest one to pull off - campaigns hate surprises - but it might be the most instructive for voters.

It's true - we don't need yet another boring debate about stupid trivia hosted by a well-coiffed talking head. But a real debate would serve Oregon well, and it would serve the candidates well.

Comments

  • pdxatheist (unverified)
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    a debate with some substance to it? now there's a thought...if such a thing could be pulled off it would be marvelous, but if it's another chance for name-calling and poking each other with sticks for an hour, screw it. there are a lot more meaningful and productive ways to spend my tv time such as watching 'america's next top model' or 'dancing with the stars.'

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    No no no, we have not had enough time yet to discuss Bosnian sniper fire and Jeremiah Wright's baleful influence.

    Sincerely,

    Sen. John McCain

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    No no no, we have not had enough time yet to discuss Bosnian sniper fire and Jeremiah Wright's baleful influence.

    Sincerely,

    Sen. John McCain

  • MCT (unverified)
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    Well thought out Kari. These ideas would go a long way to take the Saturday Night Live/geek show factor out of the debates. It would be so good if our state could return loftier standards to the debate debacle.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    ”It's true - we don't need yet another boring debate about stupid trivia...”

    Enough with the whining and hand-wringing over “non substantive” questions. Any question a voter has of a candidate is valid. In fact, questions that make them squirm and throw them off track tells me much more about their toughness and mettle than those that allow canned responses rehearsed in front of loyal staffers.

    If they can’t take the heat of a primary debate I sure don’t want to trust them with the presidency.

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    When would the debate be...tomorrow? You certainly don't want to have one while ballots are out, starting Friday.

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    Any question a voter has of a candidate is valid.

    True, but the rest of us shouldn't have to suffer.

    When would the debate be...tomorrow? You certainly don't want to have one while ballots are out, starting Friday.

    Sure, why not? The undecided folks will hold their ballots until late anyway.

  • Noelle (unverified)
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    Lucy won't pull the football away THIS time...yeah right.

  • Taylor M (unverified)
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    Kari, come on, Clinton "challenging" to debate here was always a ploy to demonstrate her campaign's supposed greater interest in issues. As TJ points out, the logistics for a debate don't make sense, and the whole idea preys upon the notion that we're not at the edge of the empire, but we're an incredibly important place! Of course the R-G falls for that (with the unbelievably wrong claim that there hasn't been a debate in the west- you can tell how seriously they take themselves when they don't include CA in the west). The RG thinks Eugene is the center of the earth, and the candidates should be falling all over themselves to court Oregon's vote. That ignores the reality that should Obama wins NC and/or Indiana, this race will be effectively, wonderfully, and thankfully over.

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    Thanks Kari!

    Although I think your moderator choices are too political. I believe Gary Hart's a declared Obama supporter (or his HuffPost columns certainly put him in that tank) so I'm not sure he's an appropriate moderator choice for western issues. And for a science debate I'd much rather see actual scientists moderating than a scientifically-leaning former presidential politician. But these topics would be great to address.

    Democrats can collectively turn this ongoing contest to their advantage by continuing to debate the issues; McCain can't capture the kind of attention that we can because there's no interest. There's no law that says a long contest has to be destructive (as long as Ted Kennedy isn't in it) - FDR's election in '32 came off of a multi-ballot brokered convention. It's amazed me to see so many democratic voices reluctant to continue the democratic process and ensure voters get their say, but I guess as Kari implies - by mentioning the "no more debates" talking point - that's the strategy of the Obama campaign.

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    "It's amazed me to see so many democratic voices reluctant to continue the democratic process"

    That's because there's no point to it. Obama has won the nomination, and the only person who refuses to admit it is Hillary Clinton. She has no legitimate path to victory.

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    I would like to see a debate in Oregon. I think we should try something innovative and different. All Kari's ideas sound good to me. I think we need to get beyond short answer sound bites to more in depth, nuanced discussions of issues. Intelligent, informed moderators can facilitate that. Allowing more time on each topics permits that.

  • tl (unverified)
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    "It's amazed me to see so many democratic voices reluctant to continue the democratic process"

    Put another way, it's because many have legitimate questions about whether this is a "democratic process" in the first place. When MSM fails abysmally to post substantive questions during numerous opportunities and rather focuses on the "horse-race" and on emotional issues insignificant to offering evidence as to a candidates fitness for office, people are unsurprisingly wary.

    -tl

  • Noelle (unverified)
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    a regional debate should have occurred before Idaho and WA voted.

  • James X. (unverified)
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    The problem is, once any debate starts, the rules go out the window because there's no way to enforce them. Can't engage each other? That rule is almost always broken. Can't talk about a certain subject? Explain that once it's asked. "But you promised me you wouldn't ask me about whether I love America!"

    We've had 21 debates. We know what vapid affairs they are. Let them talk to Oregon's editorial boards about real issues. You don't need podiums to address issues; in fact, the absence of podiums seems to help.

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    "Obama has won the nomination" - torridjoe

    Mmm, extra powder in the kool-aid. I'm always surprised and pleased when Obama supporters transcend the bullying talking points of the campaign, but torridjoe is in no danger of pleasing me or surprising me today.

    Go Hillary!

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    I agree with you, Kari.

    Enough with the whining and hand-wringing over “non substantive” questions. Any question a voter has of a candidate is valid.

    I cannot disagree strongly enough with that comment. It sounds superficially democratic, but in fact smacks of value relativism and mindless demogoguery and thoughtless populism.

    And yes, I mean to write it that strongly.

    Any question is valid? How about if John McCain fathered a black love child? How about if Hillary Clinton killed Vince Foster? How about if Obama snorted cocaine 25 years ago?

    Just because ABC did a crappy job in the last debate doesn't mean we have completely reject the role of journalists in helping to crystallize issues, vet questions, and frame the debate.

  • Jeff Alworth (unverified)
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    Nice thought experiment, Kari. It's not going to happen, but I could go for something along these lines, too. I think Obama would do better in a forum like this than when he's batting down zingers. He tends to think big-picture, and getting mired down with questions designed solely to trip up candidates are bad for him.

    I'd add one other, and one that has no chance of happening: a foreign policy debate. This could be incredibly revealing and set the winner up to take down McCain. It might also expose real differences between the candidates. Hillary wants to nuke Iran--really? Be nice to hear more about that. And so on.

  • trishka (unverified)
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    yeah, i'd go for any of those debates as described.

    while you're at it, can you get me world peace & a pony please?

    ;-)

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    This would be great, but I don't think either of the candidates would be willing to put their necks out on the line like that...its probably more of a Kucinich-Paul type of debate.

    I mean, if I can't break up my stump speech into tiny 2 minute answers I'm just not a presidential candidate.

    I guess we'll have to leave good debates to the folks at the West Wing.

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    I believe Gary Hart's a declared Obama supporter

    Didn't know that. Guess that rules him out.

    while you're at it, can you get me world peace & a pony please?

    Coming right up!

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
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    Good ideas, too bad it didn't happen. It also isn't going to happen, too bad also. Sadly, we deserve the Presidents we get.

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    As an Oregon Democrat, I'm pretty damn pleased Obama's campaign is focusing on bringing record numbers of new voters into the process by engaging Oregonians directly.

    Obama should stay focused on the grassroots and let Clinton continue her ongoing debate with the Democratic Party.

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    Just to show I'm not opposed to more debates as an absolute, I like the idea of an L-D debate in Montana.

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    Science Debate 2008 already has a moderator chosen: David Brancaccio of PBS.

    They've also got their eyes out for the future. Their debate doesn't just include primary candidates. They also invited John McCain.

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    Bravo Kari!

    It's nice to see something other than recycled talking points from an Obama supporter. The party line on the question of debates is hard for me to fathom. It feels like arguing that more new voters is bad for the process.

  • James Peters (unverified)
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    A debate in Oregon is a great idea, and I am sure the bashing will continue.

    The one thing that set Senator Obama apart from Senator Clinton, he does not bash her views. I wrote this Blog, but could not find a place to enter it.

    Senator Clinton,

    I voted for and suported your husband while he was in office. It was a period in time that was good for America.

    I have not decided to vote for you or Obama yet. Mc Cain will never get my vote. My parents, brothers are like myself, waiting to see how far you will continue to tke this Reverand Wright & Obama bashing. I am not a religious person. I have listened to all of Wrights sermons he has views, which hold value and honor for him. Why do you have to resort to a form of indifference of one or more peoples point of view. In reality it is a form of discrimintion. One of the great things this country has is the Freedom of Speech. The National polls show you have a lead of 1% with a 1% of error either way. and that is only one opinion poll on MSNBC.

    I think its a wonderful thing that you have chosen to run as President, making history. On the other hand, if it goes sour and mistakes made in policy while you are in office, History will tell how it is. In a article I read yesterday on magnets made by the Chinese, used to be a American company. The deal could have been thwarted by the current president, and was not. So things made in China, are they all bad. I believe the relations of the Chinese and the American people could be better. They have built their county on our values. The American Dream, The American inguinity. What I hear is more discrimination against a people of a differient color, they are differient than us, they are lesser because they are not white ? Immigration reform.. same thing different people, color of skin. The mexican farm workers who harvest our fields helps keep costs down. As with any people there are some who are evil doers. why punish the many for a few bad apples. You want to reform policy's, hows about if forigners break the laws of this country, then punish them as if they were visitors to this county. If I were to murder somebody while in a forign country? I would not be sent home, I would be placed in jail, and very likely killed.

    Health Care, we should have a system where every one is entitled to care no matter the cost. I am sure if you stop bashing peoples of difference, the votes will just flow in. I do not hear, read Senator Obama, bashing your views, beliefs.. and this is what sets him apart from you, your tactics to gain the Presidency.

    We are spending trillions on a war in Iraq, that has gained us nothing but deaths of our solders. Not one weapon of mass destruction was found, the war was based on a assumptions. I would like to see that money allowcated for things in this country. Healthcare, Education, Roads & bridges, building a stronger US Dollar. The current President is not guilty of genocide, he is guilty of not having the correct information. I know War is big business. It employes many thousands, at the cost of human lives. If Iran were to attack Isreal, we do not have the resources, manpower, to fight another front. If Iran attacks Isreal, Isreal is a powerful country, let them handle their own issues or problems.

    If the election was held today. I would vote for Senator Obama

    My words are my opinions. I am just one vote. James Peters, Newport Oregon.

  • BloodDAnna (unverified)
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    Well thought out debate ideas, you even made it on Hillary Clinton.com

  • Noelle (unverified)
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    As Paddy says that Oregon's delegates don't matter because we are not one of the "big important states" the supers should consider, I fail to see why he still pushes for debates. Unless, of course, he's an unashamed demagogue.

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    chris, math is not a bully. Clinton has no legitimate path to the nomination, and she's about 20-25 supers away from having it nailed down Jun 6.

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    No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No! Hell No! Enough with stupid ass debates already. We all know where the candidates stand on the issues.

  • Andy (unverified)
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    I don’t just want question-free rallies, thirty second commercials and campaign rhetoric...I want to hear about how each candidate will help us right here in Oregon.

    So yeah, I signed the petition at DebateOregon.com

  • Kimberly G (unverified)
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    Thank you for the well thought out formats Kari. Its time for America to get over the 30 second sound bite and get back to real debate and real conversations.

  • Nick (unverified)
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    A debate about regulation of the internet indeed with particular emphasis on net neutrality, more broad acceptance of open source software and competitive licensing, the role of ICANN and top-level domain registrars, the fact that currently there isn't enough affordable broadband Internet for low income people across America, the political influence of telecomm monopolies who have too much control of public switched telephone numbers, wiretap abuse by federal law enforcement, illegal spying domestically, the unnecessary, preemptive implementation and deployment of micro$oft windows in our state government's computer networks and so on!

  • Rose Wilde (unverified)
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    The RG thinks Eugene is the center of the earth, and the candidates should be falling all over themselves to court Oregon's vote.

    What do you mean? We're not?

  • kay rodrigues (unverified)
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    Why not just bring back the League of Women Voters to moderate? They did a pretty good job before.

  • Ken Elsbree (unverified)
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    The very fact that he does'nt want to debate, because he does'nt want to take time to prepare so he can meet as many people as possible, highlights the very flaw that will make his candidacy against McCain a disaster. He is ill-informed of issues facing Oregonians as opposed to Senator Clinton, who is prepared to have that very debate right now. Please Oregon Obama supporters, take your heads out of your rear-ends and realize that there is no way Obama can beat McCain ( www.electoral-vote.com ). Clinton is the stronger candidate and the one with the clearest plan for our economy and getting us out of Iraq. The truth is Senator Obama does'nt know what he'll do specifically about alot of things, which is why he always speaks in such generalities. We don't have time for this, America is in crisis and needs someone ready to go, and can't afford a McCain presidency. Please support Hillary now to help the healing begin.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)
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    Here are my suggestions for debate topics:

    (1.) Single payer, universal health coverage.

    (2.) Cut the huge, bloated, wasteful military budget.

    (3.) No to nuclear power, solar energy first.

    (4.) Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare.

    (5.) Carbon pollution tax.

    (6.) Reverse U.S. policy in the Middle East.

    (7.) Impeach Bush and Cheney.

    (8.) Repeal the Taft-Hartley anti-union law.

    (9.) Wall Street securities speculation tax.

    (10.) End corporate personhood.

    <h2>Of course, come to think of it, Clinton and Obama are both against all of these. And maybe that's why they'll have to debate lapel pins and pastors' opinions.</h2>

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