What's worse than ten candidates crowding a stage to spend two hours debating one another? Ten candidates crowding that stage for two hours to debate someone who isn't even there. But that's the spectacle the swelling crowd of Republican presidential hopefuls provided us on Tuesday night. I'm not talking about the frequent references to Fred Thompson, whose much-anticipated entry into the race is said to be less than a month away. Rather, the absent rival at the GOP debate--like the missing antagonist hovering over the Democratic cattle call two nights earlier--is someone whose identity we don't even know yet: the opposing party's nominee.
This unknown political soldier has trailed both nascent primary campaigns, lurking like Banquo's ghost at every Hillary Clinton fund-raiser and Mitt Romney press conference. Democrats can compare universal health care plans all they want, and Republicans can spar with each other over immigration, but the question of utmost importance to a lot of voters is who has what it takes to beat the other party's guy.
So, then, why does that contest have to happen only in our imaginations? The stretched-out campaign season and the expanded media universe have enabled candidates to gather for pander sessions over everything from faith to farming. It's time someone enabled them to pander to that considerable segment of each party's electorate that longs for someone who can carry the partisan flag against real live ideological foes. And the best way to do that is to have them actually face some of those foes in bipartisan debates.
Like interleague play in baseball, bipartisan political debates would be highly entertaining. It's one thing for Republicans to get up in arms about John Edwards disdaining the term "war on terror" when the former North Carolina senator is safely out of the room. It would have been quite another to watch them throw that disdain in his face. And watching the camera cut to Hillary Tuesday night when Tommy Thompson evoked Bill Clinton's impeachment in order to defend Scooter Libby would have been a lot better than having to stare at Thompson's jowly mug.
Having some actual antagonists share the stage would also have made this week's palavers rather more informative. The prospect of being challenged by a Democrat when he essentially refused to say that he'd withdraw from Iraq, even if the current escalation fails, might have forced John McCain to speak a bit more realistically about the war on Tuesday; ditto the Democrats and the talk of bringing troops home immediately, no matter what. This notion was part of Newt Gingrich's thinking when the former House Speaker/potential candidate included bipartisan one-on-one debates in his list of suggestions for improving the primary elections.
Naturally, bipartisan debates would present some logistical problems. If ten Republican hopefuls made the stage seem crowded and the answers short, 18 ideologically pumped up pols would be even trickier. But the solution to that problem would actually be quite simple. CNN devoted four hours this week to showing the 18 primary candidates debating; it would just do the same thing, spreading the bipartisan battle over the same two nights of television.
Given that Democratic consultants and Republican strategists shout at each other nightly on cable TV, there's something strange about the way the primary season plays out in two hermetically sealed campaigns. It presupposes a world-view, typically found only among party staffers, in which the primary campaign results in a nominee who most embodies where the party faithful stand on the "issues"--whether they want a health care plan with a universal mandate, for example, or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But primary voters are more pragmatic than idealistic. Back in 2004, the sense that he'd play well in the general election was the driving force behind the candidacy of a not particularly likeable Massachusetts senator. Many Democratic primary voters assumed that John Kerry's purple hearts would fortify him when he faced off against George W. Bush. The same logic is at play this year. Many Democrats fear that Hillary's high negatives will single-handedly resuscitate the Republican machine, while Republicans look favorably at Romney and Rudy Giuliani's histories of whupping Democrats on their own turf.
Smart pols would also find that sharing the stage with a crowd that includes the other party provides an opportunity to alleviate those fears--or capitalize on them. But how exactly? Do you rough up the opposing party member most popular with their base? Or do you go after the person who might actually be the biggest threat among independents? Do you show off your appealing centrist sobriety by describing Mitt Romney as your friend? Or do you throw red meat to your base by teeing off on his call for expanding Guantánamo? The questions play out like a old-fashioned pro wrestling battle royal, where grapplers must decide whether to join forces now to get Andre the Giant out of the ring or count on him to toss the others--and then face the prospect of squaring off on him all alone at the end of the match. A more high-minded way to find a candidate? Perhaps not. But at the very least, it would make for much better television than what the campaign season has brought so far.
By Michael Currie Schaffer