Lincoln/Douglas, Obama/Clinton

Hillary Clinton is challenging Barack Obama to a series of one-on-one debates in Indiana, in the style of the Lincoln/Douglas debates in the 1850’s:

So here’s my proposal – I’m offering Senator Obama a chance to debate me one-on-one, no moderators.

Just the two of us going for 90 minutes asking and answering questions. We’ll set whatever rules seem fair. I think that it would give the people of Indiana, and I assume a few Americans might tune in because nearly 11 million watched the Philadelphia debate, and I think they would love seeing that kind of debate and discussion.

As much as it pains me to agree with Senator Clinton, that is a rather good idea. The moderated debate format is stale and insipid, and the result of these debates are generally candidates spouting the same canned responses that they do on the stump. It’s rare that a candidate says anything interesting—the risks are usually too great, and the moderates rarely push them far enough to get them to truly go off script.

A one-on-one debate allows the candidates to really clash with each other. It lets them demonstrate their real mastery of the issues and it ensures that just reciting the same canned answers won’t fly.

Of course, that’s why such a debate has a snowman’s chance in Hades of happening. No candidate is going to take that risk in today’s world of blogs and YouTube. Candidates live in perpetual fear of saying something in a debate that might turn into the next “macaca” or “global test” moment.

Sen. Obama has no real reason to want to take up Sen. Clinton’s challenge—he’s still the frontrunner, and his best move is to let the clock run out and ensure that Clinton doesn’t receive any additional momentum. Even though he’s the more rhetorically gifted of the two, the cost/benefit calculus to him just doesn’t add up.

Still, if we really want a debate that puts political candidates on notice, that would be the format to do that. We want political leaders that can think on their feet and respond to the harshest criticism. We want political leaders who can face a challenge. We want political leaders who can give us answers that haven’t been processed and focus-grouped and analyzed to death.

In fact, Sen. Clinton’s idea should be extended to the general election debates. Let Sen. McCain debate the Democratic nominee one-on-one, with no moderators. Let us drop the artificial rules and let the candidates challenge each other rather than speaking past each other. These people are auditioning to be the leader of the world’s preeminent superpower—the very least of their challenges will be their political opponent. If they can’t take the heat of an unmoderated debate, how can we ask them to take the heat of leading the nation?

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