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Debates To Dream About

By David Ignatius

Even political junkies already are beginning to tire of the presidential campaign debates, and we still have more than six months before the first primary. This month's mass questionings in New Hampshire looked like police-station lineups -- the long parade of candidates repeating their alibis, trying to avoid gaffes or blunders that might get them in trouble.

If ever America needed a genuine political debate, now is the moment. The Bush administration is a spent force. The nation's problems at home and abroad are multiplying. And yet, as is too often the case, our political system is serving up a vapid broth that leaves the country more enervated than energized.

What we have are not so much debates as the kind of inane interviews given by contestants in Miss America pageants. Republicans and Democrats speak to their respective bases, rather than to the nation; most candidates stay within the boundaries of what's deemed to be safe. All Democrats support more rights for gays in the military; all Republicans are opposed.

How could we change this, so we have real debates that tell us more about the candidates? What format would encourage sharp discussion about the problems facing the country rather than this empty process of rounding up the usual suspects?

Here's a modest proposal, floated last week by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a leading strategist of the Democrats' victory in the 2006 congressional elections: Organize a series of one-on-one face-offs in which leading Democratic candidates debate not each other but leading Republicans. That would push the campaign toward the center, where it ought to be. And it might produce a mandate for actually solving problems as opposed to bickering about them.

First up in my imaginary debate series would be a discussion of health care. The two candidates I would invite for this initial bout would be the ones who seem to have thought most deeply about the problem, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Clinton famously tried and failed to craft a national health-care system in the early 1990s, when her husband was president. Romney created a statewide system for universal coverage through mandatory insurance. Let's listen to them debate what works and what doesn't.

Next up would be Iraq, the most vexing foreign policy issue. My invitations would go out to Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. Let the country hear them explain how they would deal with the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where the Bush troop surge is failing to stabilize the country. Does Obama really think we can pull our troops out without harming America's interests? Does McCain really think that more American troops can "win" a war of occupation in an Arab country? Let's have them talk these issues through, beyond the usual slogans and sound bites. I suspect we would all have a better sense of whether Obama has the depth or McCain the flexibility to be president.

A third debate might focus on trade and economic policy. The imaginary invitations for this one would go to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former senator John Edwards. Can Giuliani broaden his message beyond that of tough-talking Sept. 11 guy? Will Edwards's populist pitch hold up to an intelligent critique from a mayor whose city symbolizes the economic benefits of globalization? I want to hear that conversation.

In this political version of fantasy baseball, there would be other candidates and other topics -- from immigration to domestic security to education; from former governors Bill Richardson and Mike Huckabee to Sens. Chris Dodd and Sam Brownback. This format should encourage all the candidates to frame more clearly their own proposals on the issues being debated. After the health-care session, for example, the topic would be more clearly framed, so candidates would have to be precise in how their plans differed from those on the table.

I'm no communications lawyer. But as far as I can tell, there is nothing in the law that would prevent a civic group from issuing invitations to such debates, and nothing that would prevent the television networks from covering them as news events. And certainly, there would be nothing preventing candidates from accepting the invitations -- except fear.

In this format of Democrats debating Republicans, talking to the base alone wouldn't work. And we would hear real arguments -- real disagreements about what to do in Iraq, for example -- rather than the current, tidy consensus on each side and nothing in the middle. We would begin to learn who these candidates really are when they step out of the police lineup.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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