Is it time to scuttle the debate moderator?

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

After three widely viewed debates, it's easy to declare a loser: the moderator.

In the first showdown, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer tried desperately to spark interaction, only to have both John McCain and Barack Obama treat him like a hall monitor about to get stuffed into a locker. When the vice presidential candidates met, Gov. Sarah Palin all but ignored PBS' Gwen Ifill at times, proudly declaring that she may not answer the questions posed to her, choosing instead to talk directly to Americans. In last week's bout, the top guns stepped around time limitations and ground rules, leaving Tom Brokaw to declare that he was "just a hired hand."

All three journalists are top-notch, as is Bob Schieffer, who will be "in charge" of Wednesday's final debate, but when it comes to the modern-day format for presidential debates, the moderator is nothing more than a highly paid chaperone who can't keep the rascals from spiking the punch.

Schieffer would be better off if he skipped the event - and so would we.

I'm not suggesting that we revert to the approach used in 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas faced each other seven times while seeking a seat in the Illinois Senate. At those debates, one candidate would get an hour to talk, with the other getting 90 minutes to respond, followed by a final 30-minute rebuttal by the first speaker. Then the two of them would go into the crowd and gently wake up everyone who had dozed off.

I also wouldn't suggest adopting the style used in most high schools, where teenagers spew facts and figures so fast it would make Joe Biden's head explode.

The best option would be what's traditionally known as "impromptu debate." Here's how it would work: Each candidate would be locked in a room with nothing more than a notebook, a pen and a bowl of fruit. Exactly 20 minutes before the cameras go on, someone would slip three general questions under their doors. With less than a half-hour to prepare, the candidates would emerge and each would be given five minutes to address the first question. After that, there would be a 10-minute free-for-all between the two of them. Rinse and repeat.

That's it. No moderator, no additional rules, no safety glass. The results would be dramatic, messy, unpredictable and more telling than a dozen town halls.

I'm no Washington insider, but I'm pretty sure that presidents don't conduct diplomacy sessions with Ryan Seacrest refereeing (although in this day and age, I can't be sure). They surely don't need a supervisor when it comes to a debate.

Voters would get a chance to weigh both the content and the character of the candidates. Who hogged the mike? Who listened better? Who interrupted the most? Who lost their top? Who kept their cool?

If a candidate can't handle a one-on-one discussion with their political opponent, then I've got to wonder how they'll handle running a country.

We've got less than 48 hours to get behind this campaign. I'll bring the fruit.

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