There is going to be a debate tonight. In two groups the approximately 350 men, women and harder to characterize life forms vying for the Republican nomination are going to sit on a large stage and talk.
Most of what you get out these events is not useful. Candidates try to hog as much time as they can, and to hammer all questions into something they can answer with their standard "stump speech".
For those unfamiliar with that term it goes back to an earlier, simpler, perhaps better era in American politics. Out on the just tamed frontiers a candidate would often be going from one newly founded town to another, giving pretty much the same talk to different batches of voters. The talk was new to each group because this was before radio, TV....even in the dark times before Twitter. And it was called a stump speech because the most common place for a candidate to stand when addressing a crowd was on the stump of a newly cut down tree. There was probably a barrel of whiskey on another nearby stump, but that is another matter.
Having two or more candidates "debate" by reciting their rote "stump speeches" may not sound like a useful exercise, and in fact it is not. Debates have of late become more a matter of wondering if the moderator is biased to one side or another; or if one or both of the participants has been given the questions in advance; or if the inevitable slip ups represent "the mask slipping", or lack of mental capacity, or just human fatigue and stress.
As a format it is lousy.
I suggest we keep the stump part, but borrow one, and only one, aspect of German culture for this ritual.
In Germany when people sit around and have a free wheeling discussion of life, politics, and whatever, it is called "Stammtisch". It literally means "stump table" and reflects a tradition not unlike our early American political campaigns. People - OK, just guys in this tradition - would go out to the woods, set a keg of beer up on a stump and argue philosophical matters.
I don't advocate alcohol be involved in Presidential debates but would not hold it against any candidate who eschewed the traditional sip of water for a smallish swig of beer between answers.
But what we really need to do is scrap the current debate system entirely and make it more: 1. interesting 2. relevant to the job of President, and 3. fair
I suggest this. We get Abe Lincoln's hat from the Smithsonian for the occasion. Set it onto a stump. Into the hat go 50 or so questions. These are not known to the candidates in advance but of course are mostly the sorts of things they ought to be prepared to discuss. Each question is clearly marked as to where it came from. The sources, like America, need to be diverse.
Perhaps something like this:
15 questions from the organization sponsoring the debate. I don't care if it is Fox News or the League of Women Voters, or whoever.
10 questions from the Republican National Committee and 10 from the Democratic National Committee.
5 questions each from the campaign staff of the two debaters. Obviously in a larger field you would have to modify this, one each from 10 participants for instance.
5 questions from an internet based poll.
The entire job of the moderator would be to draw the questions from the hat and keep track of time. I think we would learn a lot more about the future Commander in Chief if he or she had to think on their feet; to be prepared for both the expected and the unexpected challenge.
There would have to be an honest way to put the questions into the hat. I propose that representatives from each of the above categories walk onto the stage and put all the questions onto a table. Sharp and interested eyes from the campaigns agree that all questions are clearly marked as to origin and into the hat they go.
Sure we would get the necessary if tedious stuff. We should hear from our future leader on matters of entitlement reform, climate change and so on. Those questions would be there.
But so would other stuff.
Moderator. "We have drawn the number two question from the internet poll, which as you recall is 'Should marijuana be legalized nationwide.' Discuss."
Candidate A. "Well, I have just been given a question from my opponent's campaign staff. My position on the Cecil the Lion issue is that both of us have more important things to discuss."
Candidate B. "Folks, my opponent and I decided over a glass of beer this afternoon that we would take a scissors and snip off part of some of these question cards. So this one is from one or another of the national Campaign Committees, but I don't know which. It is a fair question either way..."
Candidate D. "It is my good fortune, and America's, that I happen to have drawn the one question my campaign staff was allowed to submit. My opponents have been silent - suspiciously silent - on the issue of Mind Control Lizards from the Moon, but I have some extensive comments prepared on this most important issue of our times...."