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More Debates Would Bolster Political Dialogue

By David Broder

WASHINGTON -- It's pretty obvious what was the most overhyped political story of the past week. The honors clearly go to the Hillary Clinton drama: Will she stand down? Will she endorse? Will she deign to accept the vice presidency? Will she join a monastic order and move to a commune? What a lot of nonsense.

It was always a certainty that this accomplished Democratic pol would do what was in her own and her party's interests, namely, by behaving like the pro she is and thereby preserving her future career options. There was never a chance she would go to Denver to launch a futile challenge, nor would she sulk and let herself be the scapegoat if Obama loses.

Because the Clinton speculation consumed so much of the oxygen, a genuinely important development drew much less sustained attention than it deserves. I am referring to the challenge from John McCain to Barack Obama for a series of 10 joint town meetings starting this month and continuing perhaps until Election Day.

Bypassing the TV networks, the presidential debate commission and all the other muckety-mucks who have seized control of the campaign dialogue, McCain simply dropped the newly nominated Obama a note saying, in effect, let's get it on.

The Obama camp said it found the notion "appealing," and with that, what may be the largest step toward improving the content of the presidential election became a genuine possibility.

Ever since Jerry Ford, that good man, as an incumbent president, challenged Jimmy Carter to debate in 1976, we have institutionalized a small number of debates -- or reallly joint news conferences -- between the major candidates. The first such debates were held in 1960, under a law that allowed the networks to sponsor them without providing equal time for minor candidates. The country was captivated by the Kennedy-Nixon encounters. But Lyndon Johnson was nowhere near that generous to Barry Goldwater; Richard Nixon stiffed his opponent in 1968 and 1972, and the debates might well have disappeared had Ford not emerged from his convention trailing Jimmy Carter -- and in need of the bravado communicated by his decision to be the first-ever incumbent president to enter a television debate.

Most years, the autumn debates were the main events of the campaign, drawing the largest audiences and having the maximum impact. But over time, these debates have become more and more ritualistic and less and less useful to voters.

The candidates rehearse so intensely, calculating what topics will likely be raised and delivering their answers so often that they seem scripted. Campaign aides critique each run-through, suggesting words or phrases that "test" the best.

The stakes are so high that all the life and spontaneity are drained out of the occasion; often, irrelevancies -- Al Gore sighing or George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch -- dominate any of the substance.

There is no guarantee that the new town meetings will avoid these dangers. But I think the odds are that they will be better. Having so many of them will reduce the stakes for each one. Starting them early will also make them more manageable. Keeping the format simple, as McCain suggests, will also help. Encouraging the candidates to talk directly with each other, and with the voters who put questions to them, will help keep the dialogue fresh and the exchanges pointed.

You can't avoid some showmanship and some rehearsed zingers. But given the personalities and character of these two candidates, it is very likely that a lot of what we would see would be the genuine beliefs of these two men, expressed in their own words.

And what a marvelous precedent that would set for future years, when one or the other of the candidates -- likely the incumbent president -- would try to avoid early and frequent debates.

This simple-sounding idea, which stirred no great excitement last week, could turn out to be one of the best things to happen to our politics maybe since the enfranchisement of women. Too bad it was eclipsed by the Adventures of Hillary.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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