Best-selling author Steven Johnson writes in The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America of the role of “coffeehouse culture” in the explosion of productive scientific inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Johnson asserts that “Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story.” He adds that if one were to “create enough caffeine-abusers in your society . . . you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason.”
So it was that this weekend, while my eldest son and I sat sipping excellent coffee he had brewed, that reason dawned. Like a bolt out of the blue, we came up with a solution to one of the most perplexing political problems of our time:
How to handle the debates among the candidates for nomination for president.
Among the current political preoccupations in these United States, none figures more prominently than the 2016 presidential race. Much of the attention has been focused on “the Don” and various concerns among various groups within the Republican Party about the effect of his “Twitter Takedown” campaign on Republican chances to take the White House. Slightly less dominant, but still a source of considerable worry, has been the continuing struggle of Hillary Clinton to get clear of the email server issues associated with her time in the State Department (as well as other alleged scandals). Democratic pundits worry about whether her brand has been so tarnished that she will win the nomination only to lose the general election (to Donald Trump?).
On both sides, part of the concern is that there won’t be an effective alternative to the heir apparent of the moment, and part of the concern is that there is no way to establish who that heir should be in (a) crowded fields like the Republican field, or (b) what is thought to be a weak field of challengers on the Democratic side against the candidate whose time has finally come.
Josh and I, our mental juices supercharged by strong coffee, came up with the solution. I think it is so good, so American, and so timely, that I freely offer it here. If you like it (whoever “you” are), run with it. Take it to CNN, FOX News, NPR; take it to the Republican or the Democratic National Committee. Take it where you will . . . because I think (all joking aside) that this might be the game-changer that puts our presidential selection process on a somewhat more productive track.
Call it the Presidential Debate Bracket System (PDBS).
The flaws in the present system are almost too numerous to identify. Moderators play too large a role, but also feel constrained to be “moderate.” Candidates get to sound-bite their way through most responses and to play to audiences with throw-away lines. There is very little that happens that actually helps us understand anything other than stage presence and temperament, and these only to a limited extent. And when the candidate field becomes large, deciding who will, and who will not, be on the stage becomes critical and problematic, while the actual debate is reduced to a parade of superficial answers to a limited set of questions.
Why not give control of the contest to the contestants? Let them debate each other, with a referee to make sure they play by some limited rules.
Why not let everyone participate, rather than making arbitrary distinctions between candidates?
And why not have them go head-to-head, one-on-one, as they will as political leaders? Use the NCAA basketball tournament model (the familiar “March Madness”) as our guide. Because most important political contests, while they involve large bodies (like Congress or the United Nations) are much more head-to-head contests (the president with the speaker of the House, the president with the president of Russia) than they are Miss America stage events.
It may be madness to think of selecting a president the way we select an NCAA basketball champion, but isn’t what we’re doing now at least a little bit crazy?
Besides, my wife constantly reminds me that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.
By that measure, we definitely have a crazy presidential selection process.
Tomorrow . . . Making the Presidential Debate Brackets Work