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The Why's Guy

Key presidential debates need a dose of reality

I want answers.

No, I demand them.

And you should too.

But when the presidential candidates walk onstage Friday night for their first debate, I expect a lot of evasiveness as they say what they want us to hear, not what we need to hear.

I'm not talking about outright lies. I'm talking about straying so far from the topic at hand that no one will remember the question.

Each candidate will recite a few prepackaged "comments" about a topic, then deftly segue into the talking points his handlers want him to spew. Moderators, more concerned with their own images and the time constraints, rarely push candidates to stay on point.

What happened to simply answering the question?

But there is an answer to this anti-answer environment.

Reality TV.

Let's call it So You Think You Can Dance Around the Topic. Add a touch of American Idol, a pinch of Survivor and a smidgen of sports.

To start, we need judges — the independent kind.

Randy, Paula and Simon are taken. Too bad; that would be entertaining. Forget the political operatives and media pundits. And we'll pass on the experts who might understand an answer that would leave the rest of us in a fog.

We want average Joes, Janes and Joses, the kind of people the candidates should be talking to during the debates.

The judges will be sequestered in plush digs offstage, and the candidates' voices electronically altered so they can't be recognized. After each response, the judges vote on whether the candidate has answered the question. Their ruling is final, and there is no appeal.

Okay, the judges are in their La-Z-Boys, sipping Pepsi (Idol has Coke locked up) and munching on chips and cheese puffs, so let's play the game.

The rules are simple, the penalties even simpler.

• Illegal return: Any candidate who starts an answer by uttering a phrase even remotely similar to "First, let me respond to my opponent" is sent to a stool in the penalty box at the back of the stage. He also loses the opportunity to answer the question he was asked. A dunce cap would be a nice touch, but this is the race for president of the United States, so we should retain a proper degree of decorum.

• Incomplete pass: If the judges decide a candidate's response is a nonanswer, that candidate is charged with a foul. He must acknowledge the foul by raising his hand, and one of five lights on a scoreboard behind him is illuminated.

After two fouls the candidate loses a minute of response time for the next question. A third foul results in him sitting out one question. A fourth foul means he is out for two questions. Five fouls is considered a debate misconduct penalty, and his debate is over.

• Delay of debate: There will be a "shot clock" on the moderator's desk. Any candidate who goes past the allotted time for an answer has his microphone turned off and incurs a foul.

• Personal foul: If the judges decide a candidate has thrown a low blow, the candidate is hit with a foul and sits out a question. A second personal foul results in a debate misconduct (see above).

A radical idea?

Sure.

Will it happen?

Never.

Would it work?

You betcha.

The candidates wouldn't dare wander off point. We would get more information in a couple of hours than we have in nearly two years of campaigning.

That's what the American public needs before it votes. Not more prepackaged sound bites.

And there's one other bonus.

The ratings would be through the roof.

Times staff writer Kyle Kreiger rants about the serious and silly with one question in mind: Why? He can be reached at kreiger@sptimes.com. To read previous columns, click on his name at the top of this rant.

Key presidential debates need a dose of reality 09/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 8:55pm]

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