The most acclaimed candidate debates in American history — the Lincoln-Douglas encounters of 1858 — had nothing in common with modern presidential debates: No questions from moderators, no 60-second time limits, no ricocheting from topic to topic, no real-time reaction from focus groups. No pre- and post-debate sermonizing by political pundits. No Anderson Cooper or Megyn Kelly. No presidential candidates, even. (Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were running for the US Senate).
By comparison, today's "debates" are pitiful.
Presidential hopefuls aren't required to debate their opponents. Andrew Jackson didn't debate John Quincy Adams. Harry Truman didn't debate Thomas Dewey. FDR ran for president four times, and never debated anyone. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy broke new ground when they agreed to meet in a series of televised debates in 1960, but their innovation was slow to catch on. It took 16 years before another pair of presidential nominees, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, were willing to debate.
Only since the 1980s have presidential debates become routine. They have also become absurd. With each election cycle these face-offs grow less and less substantive. They aren't forums for serious arguments about national priorities and public policy, they are political entertainment — like "Jeopardy!" but with fewer facts. Or like WWE Wrestling, minus the gravitas.
Television networks can't be blamed for delivering presidential debates that amount to little more than game shows and gotcha contests. Gaffes and smackdowns are good for ratings, and TV executives understandably want to deliver what viewers will watch.
But who decreed that broadcast media — or any news media, for that matter — must be in charge of organizing, hosting, and moderating debates? Perhaps the idea of a wholly unmoderated debate, à la Lincoln and Douglas, is implausible in 2015. But why must those asking the questions and keeping time always be TV news anchors? As Barbara Bush said once in a somewhat different context: "There are other people out there that are very qualified." Americans have learned to live without bank tellers, phone books, and leaded gasoline. They can probably get through election debates without the help of Chris Wallace, Candy Crowley, and Jake Tapper.
Who should moderate instead? Why not enlist some of the nation's finest teachers to pose questions to the candidates? Why not invite the Smithsonian Institution to arrange a debate, with a panel made up of Nobel Prize recipients? Why not recruit presidential historians — say, Edmund Morris, Amity Shlaes, and Michael Beschloss — to put would-be chief executives through their paces? For that matter, why not a debate in which the candidates are interrogated by former presidential nominees? Surely voters would be at least as interested in watching Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis grill the presidential contestants as in seeing Gwen Ifill or Bret Baier do it.
In a country overflowing with talent of all kinds, why should presidential debates be deemed the rightful province of political journalists? One of the best engagements of the 2008 presidential race was the Saddleback Civil Forum in Lake Forest, Calif., when John McCain and Barack Obama were pressed in back-to-back interviews by Rick Warren, the prominent pastor and bestselling author. Warren's questions were smart, the candidates' answers made some news, and the whole thing was covered live on national TV — even though it hadn't been sponsored by any news organization.
The quadrennial gripes (from Republicans and Democrats) about media bias and unfair moderators could be avoided if the parties moved past the assumption that the laws of nature require political debates to be controlled by broadcasters.
Alternatives to the same-old, same-old are endless.
Imagine a setting in which candidates had to make their case to Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens, retired Supreme Court justices whose skill at cutting through boilerplate and probing to the heart of an argument was honed over thousands of hours of oral argument.
Imagine candidates in a dialogue moderated by gifted, thoughtful, and eloquent theater critics, such as John Lahr or Terry Teachout. Or by a skillful panel drawn from the world of business — Microsoft founder Bill Gates, maybe, or legendary investor Jack Bogle, or Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. Or by retired foreign leaders who admire America, like Britain's Tony Blair, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and Canada's Stephen Harper.
Presidential debates in this country have grown too numerous and shallow, and could badly use a rethink. A return to Lincoln-Douglas may not be in the cards. But ending the media monopoly would be a step in the right direction — and might just restore real meaning to what has degenerated into a stilted and unworthy ritual.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.