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The Great Debate Debate

In this public service Reality Check, CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg asks a panel of experts for some ways to shake up the presidential debates.

Everyone would like to see a free-swinging debate in which, absent media interlocutors and "moderators," the candidates argue the issues and inflict severe intellectual and perhaps emotional damage on each other. Everyone, that is, except the candidates.

When the first presidential debate was being formatted in 1960, the networks proposed that Richard Nixon and John Kennedy go one on one. It was called the "Oregon model," after a debate that Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen had held before the Oregon primary in 1948.

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Neither JFK nor RMN would have any part of such a direct confrontation. As practicing politicians, who had been at news conferences, Face the Nation appearances and the like, they were comfortable in a setting where a reporter posed the questions. Their managers warned them of the dangers of appearing harsh or combative to voters, as might happen in a no-holds-barred encounter. So they insisted on a panel of newspeople asking the questions, and that format has generally stuck.

In the hopes of improving that format, Reality Check asked various debate experts to suggest alternate formats that might better show the public just who has the right stuff to be president. Here are some of the responses:

  • Martin Plissner, author of Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections: "Do it with a single moderator to cut down excess talk. Pick a handful of issues, maybe four or five, and give each candidate two minutes to state his position. Then the moderator asks questions without predetermined time limits or a predetermined order of questions."
  • Thomas Edsall, political writer, Washington Post: "Do away with the panel. Leave it to the candidates. Just let them go at each other with very limited restrictions. You need to have someone as a sort of referee to keep everyone from ganging up on one opponent. But thats all."
  • Jules Witcover, columnist and author, No Way to Pick a President: "I like a single moderator approach. A panel is too confining. Even better would be to have nobody getting in the way, but it would tough to get them (the candidates) to agree. They don't like that direct questioning.

    "Town meetins are also good, using ordinary voters to ask the questions. Some reporters used to make fun of the questions voters would ask. But when they were given the chance, they asked good questions. One of the general election debates should be a town meeting."

  • Tony Kornheiser, sports columnist, Washington Post: "Get rid of the journalists. They ask stupid questions about policy. Voters don't want to know about that stuff.

    "You begin by ordering Forbes to leave on the grounds he's an alien. The debate is then held in front of ordinary voters, each equipped with a button that sends an electrical signal when the voter detects deceit in what a candidate says. When the majority has pushed the button, a sign lights up above the candidate. The sign says, 'Who are you kidding,' or maybe, 'Who the --- are you kidding?' When the light goes on, a trap door opens up under the guy's seat and he is sucked through a tube into the basement.

    "After we get down to three, a guy who looks just like Dick Clark comes out and holds his hand over the head of each candidate. It's like a dance. The audience applauds, and on that basis we select a winner. Now you've got something."

But what if nobody applauds?
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