Fred Thompson has noted, as I have recently, the ineffectiveness of presidential debates in their current format. On the day of his official launch into the presidential race, Thompson told Sean Hannity that the format did little to enlighten American voters on the issues or where the candidates really stand on policy:
It is not designed really to illuminate people's thoughts and feelings. Thirty-, 40-second sound bites, you know, to questions that hopefully will elicit some kind of a comment about one of the other participants, something like that, to make a little story, that sort of thing.
I kind of think that Newt's idea of going back to the Lincoln-Douglas debate-type format, where you have two people sit down or stand up and, you know, take an hour or so, and maybe an hour-and-a-half and discuss maybe one particular category, one particular topic, and get in-depth and go back and forth on it. ...
And there will be a time when we will need to have a good debate, if they are interested in debates, and we will do it one-on-one or we will do it in a big group, however they want to do it. And we will get into that.
Mike Huckabee's campaign paid attention to that interview, and they have issued an invitation to Thompson to put that plan into action. Huckabee has challenged Thompson to a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, and is asking his supporters to co-sign the open letter for emphasis:
I share your view of the debates and agree that Newt's "Nine Nineties in Nine" concept is a far better way to make sure America's next President has the character and capacity to lead our nation forward, and that's why I have already signed that pledge. I agree that what is needed is a real discussion by the candidates about their vision for the future of our country.
The debates so far have not offered an in-depth discussion on critical issues such as health care, education, energy independence, in addition to terrorism and national security.
I am aware of your comments on Fox News that you would like to participate in a series of Lincoln Douglas-styled debates. I would like to officially accept your offer and look forward to working with your staff to schedule this. I would suggest we start this series in New Hampshire.
At the end of these debates, the American people will know each candidate far greater and would be able to choose which candidate possesses the depth of knowledge on the issues and has the character and capacity to lead or great nation. More importantly, the American people would be able to rely on a true conversation on the issues, instead of just 30-second ads and soundbites to decide which candidate has the right vision for America's future.
Normally, a candidate as far ahead of another such as Thompson is with Huckabee would avoid such an event, but this may be a rare case where both candidates could benefit. Huckabee would obviously get more attention than he's receiving at the moment. It would give him national exposure, something Huckabee only really gets during the presidential debates -- which he has to split with at least seven other candidates.
For Thompson, it gives him an opportunity to address a couple of criticisms of his campaigning style right from the start. He has a rap for being less than energetic and a newly-acquired complaint about avoiding both New Hampshire and debates in general. All of these would get addressed in such an event. Also, and this is important, Huckabee has a reputation as a gentleman in debates, and like Thompson, too thoughtful to fit into the lightning-round format of the current system. Thompson can be reasonably sure that the 90-minute debate with Huckabee would not decline into a vituperative, negative attack session, and Huckabee could be reasonably sure of the same.
And for the rest of us, it could help drive a stake through the heart of the current presidential format once and for all. It might actually make these events worthwhile and give voters real reasons to watch them. Anything that would expose these attention-deficit-inspired quiz shows gets my support.
Thompson has made it his habit this year to tweak the debate process. He should accept Huckabee's challenge and show people how presidential candidates should really engage each other. (h/t: reader Steve B)