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Debating Debates: A Modest Proposal

There’s been a lot of discussion the last several weeks about whether and how the GOP should reclaim control of the candidate debates in the next presidential election cycle to end the perverse situation of the last cycle in which the candidates were not just debating each other, but also in effect debating the Democratic party in the form of the biased media “moderators” who are anything but moderate.  But even if the GOP asserts control over the moderators of the next cycle, it doesn’t solve the “Candy Crowley” problem in the fall debates, in which the GOP candidate faces not only the Democratic nominee but the partisan “moderators” as well.

There’s a remarkable detail in John Fund’s NRO article today on this subject from 1988:

It’s not controversial to note that presidential debates have long displayed real problems with fairness on the part of moderators and panelists. PBS anchor Jim Lehrer notes in a recent book, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, that the panelists in one of the 1988 presidential debates between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis pressured CNN moderator Bernard Shaw to withdraw or alter what became his famous question to Dukakis: Would he favor the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered? Now-MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell and ABC’s Ann Compton confirmed to Lehrer that they had put pressure on Shaw, who is still peeved over the incident. “I’ve never confronted any of the three panelists,” Shaw said. “But I was outraged at the time that a journalist would try to talk a fellow journalist out of asking a question. I think you can tell I am still doing a burn over it. I just wouldn’t think of doing that.”

It was that famous question from Shaw that put the final nail in the coffin of the Dukakis campaign, and you can see why other “journalists” were keen to try to stop Shaw from asking it.  And Fund goes on to remind everyone how Crowley openly took Obama’s side in that infamous moment in the second debate last fall.

It will do only a little good to demand that Candy Crowley be balanced on a debate panel with Brit Hume, since there is still the problem of “selection bias” over which questions are selected; the questions, or at least their form, tend to come from a liberal perspective.  So here’s an idea to shake up the debates: allow each candidate to select one or more questions to be asked by the moderator of the other candidate in advance.  For security purposes—so that Crowley can’t leak it to the Democrat—put the questions in sealed envelopes and pass them to the moderators when everyone takes the stage at the start of the debate.  For real interest, then allow each candidate to pose a follow up question to his opponent.

This idea is borrowed, of course, from the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  It may be too much to ask that we have real debates without moderators, but allowing the candidates themselves to set part of the agenda for the debates will level the playing field for the GOP somewhat.

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