Why debates are needed now more than ever

President Barack Obama, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Oct. 3, 2012.
AP Photo/David Goldman

(CBS News) When I was asked to moderate this year's final debate, someone asked me if I thought the debates were still important.

Well, of course I do, but not just because it is our best chance to compare the candidates as we did on Wednesday.

When I came to Washington nearly 44 years ago, Republicans and Democrats actually knew one another. Sure, they were partisan, but after hours they often went to the same places. Their kids went to school together. Their wives knew each other, and those relationships made Washington work.

No more. The pressure to raise money is so great now, politicians spend as little time as possible in Washington, so they're all strangers.

Worse, they avoid people in the other party after hours. They don't want the folks back home to think they hobnob with the enemy!

What's happened here reflects the rigid partisan divide that grips the country . . . which brings me to these debates. They've become one of the few events left that partisans from both sides will actually watch.

There are not many undecideds this year, but when the debates come on, partisans from both sides will actually tolerate hearing the other side of the story.

That's a rare thing these days, but somehow or another I think it's a good thing.

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    Bob Schieffer is a CBS News political contributor and former anchor of "Face The Nation," which he moderated for 24 years before retiring in 2015.