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Clocking Ticking on Replacing "Campaign-Trail Charades" with Useful Debate

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, October 13 2008

Time is running short, my friends. With the final scheduled presidential match-up set to kick off on Wednesday at 9pm ET at Long Island's Hofstra University, Larry Lessig is refocusing the Open Debate Coalition's call for McCain and Obama to take proactive steps to open up the debate to let a bit more sunlight in. While there's fewer than 60 hours left, there's still time left for the campaign's to flex their rapid-response muscles and begin the process of opening the debates.

The ask? It's four-fold. The first step is to unshackle the moderator -- in the case of Wednesday's event, CBS's Bob Schieffer -- to allow him or her to actually follow up the the candidates' (non-)responses with additional questions. The second is to respond to peer-reviewed questions coming in from the Internet, using a tool like Google Moderator or Community Counts. The third is to require that media pool footage of the debate be released into the public domain. And the fourth is to commit to, in the end, wholly reforming or replacing the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

Both campaigns have issued rather mild expressions of support for opening up the process. (Obama's statement is here and the McCain campaign's statement, from General Counsel Trevor Potter, is here.) Their rather toothless requests to the CPD are, though, a bit underwhelming considering it's the campaigns themselves that make up the rules of engagement in the first place. The CPD itself is an establishment creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, formed after a frustrated League of Women Voters threw in the towel on debate moderation back in 1988:

It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions...The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

With the general sense of disappointment that has greeted the dry, desultory, and depthless first two debates this election cycle, there's no time like the present to seize on the public interest in changing them. While it's true that presidential debates may never be as engaging, as say, a "Top Chef" season finale, boring is bad when the event ends up being entirely unrevealing about the human being who will occupy the Oval Office come January (whichever candidate that happens to be).

The debates thus far haven't provoked responses from either McCain or Obama (or for that matter, Palin or Biden) beyond, in many cases, the carving up of their stump speeches into chunks that seem somewhat appropriate for the question at hand. The format has failed to confront candidates with questions they hadn't considered before -- most likely innumerable times. If the time, money, and attention that goes into these debates is going to be worthwhile, candidates should be expected to stop for a moment and consider their response, and should have the freedom in their responses to demonstrate their priorities.

Perhaps there are some promising signs for Wednesday night's debate, though, no matter what the candidates agree to; Bob Schieffer has derided the two previous McCain Obama match-ups as "joint news conference[s]."

Anyone can sign the Open Debate Coalition's letter calling for the candidates to act, in the next several hours, to open the debate.