We’re losing the debates

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden debated last night. Like millions of Americans, I made sure I was in front of a TV to tune into Pitt’s 26-21 upset of No. 10 South Florida.

What made the football game more interesting was that even though I was rooting for Pitt, I didn’t have any idea what either side was going to do – much less what the outcome would be. If you’ve made up your mind on a candidate, chances are the debate won’t change your mind. Worse yet, if you’ve followed the race to this point – and it has been a very long race to this point – you have a good idea of what each veep candidate will say in advance.

Early in the third quarter of the football game, Pitt tried a fake punt. It came from out of nowhere. What would the equivalent of a fake punt be in a Presidential or Vice Presidential debate? Joe Biden calling for free market solutions to the financial crisis? Sarah Palin accepting Hugh Hefner’s offer?

Debates have become microcosms of the campaigns – in other words, scripted personality contests that only happen every four years. And for the campaigns, that’s the right move, because they have such a finite amount of time to discuss issues and ideas. The American people are stuck voting for candidates based on personality rather than ideas.

Debates would be more useful if they were more frequent. In addition to holding a handful of candidates’ debates just before an election, it might be fun to see monthly or weekly debates between conservatives and liberals on various issues. At the risk of dating myself, this worked well about 15 years ago, when Ross Perot and then-thin Vice President Al Gore debated NAFTA on Larry King Live.

I’d like to see an hour long debate between MoveOn.org and the Heritage Foundation about whether we should replace our income tax with a national sales tax. I’d like to see the AFL-CIO debate National Right to Work over the proposal to remove secret ballots from union elections.

This isn’t going to turn our Presidential election into forums of philosophy, but it might help engage people more in the political process. And, let’s be honest, those 24-hour-a-day news channels don’t have enough news as it is. This would help them kill an hour or so a week.

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