As the presidential and vice presidential debates approach, one of the more peculiar rituals of American politics has resurfaced: In a cynical attempt to lower public expectations for their candidates' performance, the Republican and Democratic campaigns have begun to talk about what bad debaters their own candidates are. This stale tactic, which assumes that the American public is naively unaware of the oft-played expectation game, has been evident in both the McCain and Obama camps. But while these silly attempts to lower expectations may be meaningless, the debates themselves are not.
In a political culture dominated by sound bytes and rhetoric, where the campaign season primarily consists of pre-screened questions and carefully rehearsed speeches in front of staunchly partisan crowds, its nice that for a few short moments every election, the Republican and Democratic candidates are forced to actually engage with one another in formal debates. These events offer valuable and potent opportunities for Americans to see the presidential hopefuls directly challenge each others policy proposals and present their cases to become the next commander in chief.
Consequently, we are pleased to see that the schedule of three debates recently agreed upon by the campaigns of Obama and McCain includes considerable opportunities for questioning and free-form discussion. In the newly agreed upon formats, each topical segment will contain a few minutes for an opening overview, followed by several minutes of open-ended debate in which the candidates will be able to directly engage with one other.
This is a clear improvement over a more rigid structure, as it helps emphasize what makes the debates such unique events on the campaign calendar: their ability to force candidates to respond directly to an adversarys challenge. Too often, overly structured debate too closely resembles two simultaneous interviews, with each candidate spouting carefully memorized talking points, rather than a substantive debate in which the merits of ideas can truly be tested.
It seems a shame, therefore, that this same flexibility will not characterize the vice presidential debate, in which Sen. Joe Biden will face off against Gov. Sarah Palin. Unlike its presidential counterpart, the much-anticipated Biden-Palin showdown will be constrained by a more restrictive format that leaves little time for questions or interactions between debaters.
Even more troubling than the curtailed structure is that the McCain campaign has publicly admitted to insisting upon such a format in an attempt to hide the inexperience of its vice presidential nominee. The campaign even tried to eliminate question-and-answer segments from the debate entirely, as aides openly expressed concern that Palin would be at a disadvantage against the savvy and experienced Biden.
Debates exist to unmask weaknesses, not to hide them. In this election cycle, the vice presidential debate ought to be an opportunity for the citizenry to discover the largely unknown Palin even if that includes her potential unfamiliarity with relevant political topics not for the McCain campaign to doctor the debate format to hide her weaknesses. Informing the electorate about candidates qualifications (or lack thereof) is precisely the reason for such exchanges. Without free-flowing argumentation, debates become little more than 90-minute spectacles of empty rhetoric. Public interest, not the political needs of a given candidate, should determine a debates structure.
As John McCain would surely argue, in these precious few times of year when policy positions can actually be examined, politics should come second, and country first.