Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What I'd like to see in debates

It still seems to be up in the air as to what kind of debates Obama and McCain will hold (though I hope they maintain their resistance to more of the ABC-style junkfests in which ersatz journalists ask nothing questions). But I would like to see a change to the typical format in which someone, whether talking head or average citizen, asks a question, the candidate answers with a talking point only obliquely relevant to the question, then points the throng to the campaign web site to read a white paper that explicates the talking point.

What I want to see is the questioner ask the candidate, What is the goal of [something]? That is, what should a well-working economy do? What should be the objective of an energy policy? What are the true national interests of the United States versus those of other countries? What is the goal of a health system?

Since the answers are likely to be vague, the questioner will have to be relentless in getting the candidate to lay out their thoughts. If a candidate says, for example, that America needs to be energy-independent, let's delve into that - does that mean if wind power is to be a major component of the independent strategy, that we'll restrict all manufacturing of blades and turbines to this country? If a health care plan is to give basic health care to all citizens, let's talk about how we can provide certain specialty physicians to rural North Dakota.

Once we understand what the basic beliefs of the candidates are, we can evaluate their current policies as laid out in the white papers, but we would also have a basis for evaluating what their actions would be in unforeseen situations. If a candidate believes that the free market is paramount, then it should be obvious that he or she will not support an expansion of bankruptcy laws that allows a company like United Airlines to survive, to enrich its executives while stiffing employees, retirees, shareholders, and suppliers. UA and other poorly-run corporations will have to sink or swim.

One problem that this scheme avoids is the abhorrence of hypotheticals that any smart candidate holds. The question is not, what do we do if China invades Taiwan? It's, should we always uphold agreements we have made with foreign governments? If not, what would present a compelling national interest that could allow us to break those agreements?

Of course, the probability of such a debate format is pretty much zero; I said it's what I'd like to see, not what I expected ever to see. But it sure would beat flag pin and real estate developer questions.

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