Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Let candidates debate one-on-one

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Sun October 21, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Presidential debates have tried all kinds of formats
  • He suggests a debate between two candidates -- with no moderator
  • Voters would see how candidates deal with unpredictable situations, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Over the years, it seems that just about every format imaginable has been used for debates between presidential candidates.

Lecterns. Chairs. No chairs. Tables. No tables. Open stages to walk around on.

Moderators working solo, like Jim Lehrer at this year's first presidential debate and Martha Raddatz at the vice presidential debate. Moderators with panels of reporters. Questions submitted by the audience. Questions submitted by viewers at home. Town halls, like the one that will be moderated by CNN's Candy Crowley on Tuesday.

Yet, 52 years after the first televised presidential debate, there still often seems something stilted and dry about some of them (but not all: witness last week's high-energy vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan). Frequently, though, the staffs of the people running for the presidency negotiate the ground rules so fussily that the debates can at times feel like some sort of candidates' cotillion.

So what if, for one debate some year, it was agreed to try the one format that has not been tested?

The debate would still be 90 minutes in prime evening time. The proceedings would still be telecast live on all the networks. There would still be an audience in the auditorium.

But there would be no moderator, and no panel of questioners. There would be no subject matter agreed to in advance.

There would be no rules.

None.

Crowley: "keeping the voters in mind"
Opinions differ on Biden's laughter
Do the claims add up?
Ryan: Romney cares about 100%

At the top of the hour, the two candidates would come out onto the stage. There wouldn't even need to be an announcer making an introduction.

And then. ...

It would be up to them.

They would have 90 minutes to talk to the audience, and to each other. To argue, and try to persuade, with no referee.

It just might be fascinating. Their staffs, as campaign staffs will do, would have prepared them and would have come up with tactics for each of them to take over the debate. And you can bet that the two candidates would fall back on those rehearsed tactics. For about 15 minutes.

But then they would realize that, with 75 or so minutes left, they had better figure out a way to talk about things with each other, and with the nation.

It would be like when people get stuck in an elevator together: They talk because they have to. They may feel that they have nothing in common, but now they're here. In the elevator suspended between floors, there's no one but the two of them.

Surprising things can be said and learned. There's no blueprint. No script.

If a presidential debate of this sort were to be attempted, the audience in the auditorium, and at home, might find out some things about the candidates they would never discern in a tightly formatted, moderated debate, or in a standard-issue stump speech. And the candidates might find out a few things about each other -- maybe even find some unanticipated common ground. Funny things can happen in an elevator that isn't going anywhere.

Some of what unfolds might have little to do with the specific words that are spoken. Is one of the candidates overbearing and selfish in how he uses the time -- does he refuse to let his opponent get a word in? That would be a good thing for the voters to know. Is one of the candidates lighthearted and easygoing as he deals with the empty minutes in the company of the person he is running against? That would be instructive to see. Who's the leader? Who heats up? Who is unflappable?

There are, after all, occasions when presidents meet one-on-one with powerful foreign leaders, with no one to guide the conversation. This might be a good approximation of that -- presidential candidates unplugged, on their own, with no escape hatch.

(Or the debate might instead turn out to be an approximation of a pro-wrestling cage match, in suits and ties instead of trunks.)

Of course, once candidates took part in one debate with this format, they and their staffs would undoubtedly devise a way to screw it up for the next time, to make it bland and suck all the life out of it. But for one night -- that first night it was tried -- it just might make for great, riveting viewing.

Or -- let's be candid -- it might turn out to be an utter flop, like the announcerless National Football League telecast that took place in 1980, when NBC Sports, as an experiment, put on a regular-season game between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins with no announcers or commentators -- just the sights and sounds of the action. The post-game consensus was that it wasn't such a splendid idea at all.

But two candidates, stuck in the presidential-debate elevator, depending on their own wits, intelligence and deeply held beliefs to carry the night? With just the two of them to figure it all out, and the entire nation watching?

There is at least a chance that it could develop into one of the most spontaneous and illuminating evenings of politics ever televised.

There's only one way to find out.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT