A New Debate System; Newt Gingrich and Martin Kalb Have a Plan

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Debate System; Newt Gingrich and Martin Kalb Have a Plan


Byline: Barry Casselman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The presidential debate institution, long in decline, has entered its "boutique" stage with major party candidate debates now taking place in Hispanic, black, homosexual, religious/evangelical, social values and other venues. I think the diverse venues are a good thing, and it is positive for the major parties to reach out to constituencies neglected in the past, but I don't see the quality of the political dialogue and conversation improving as well.

Marvin Kalb and Newt Gingrich have proposed a new system for the nominees of the major parties (and a major third-party candidate if one comes forward) with their Nine Debates In Nine Weeks proposal. This would have one debate a week with the major party nominees in the nine weeks before Election Day 2008. I recently endorsed this because I think the proposed open format is a huge improvement on the rigid and murky format of the current debate system which is really designed to obscure the candidates' views rather than clarify them.

In response, I received some thoughtful and constructive comments, including some from very experienced presidential campaign operatives, suggesting that, while the Nine Debates idea is excellent in principle, it is very unlikely to be accepted at the nominee level by either party.

That is because, as was pointed out to me, holding nine debates in the nine weeks prior to Election Day would paralyze the presidential campaigns from most of their necessary political activity, and force the candidates and their staffs to spend most of their time continually preparing for the next debate. This would have the secondary consequence, it seems to me, of exacerbating the dependence on TV and radio political advertising, something which already saturates the airwaves at election time. Live speeches and personal campaigning by nominees would be drastically reduced from already reduced levels of recent presidential campaigns, losing further the authentic spontaneity of the final weeks of a national election.

Some might say this is a necessary trade-off, but I don't think this is so. I don't think Mr. Kalb and Mr. Gingrich are inflexibly wedded to the original calendar for their idea.

I know that Mr. Gingrich, in particular, is more interested in reforming the process and improving the dialogue than anything else.

So I would like to suggest some changes in the calendar of the presidential debates, and perhaps some tweaking of the structure, without altering the important innovation the Nine Debates proposal essentially makes. …

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