Let's Play Hardball

It's outrageous that Mike Gravel will not be appearing in the Democratic Party debate in Las Vegas on CNN tomorrow night.

It was equally scandalous when the Democrats dumped him from the traveling circus known as the presidential debates when it landed on NBC in Philadelphia Oct. 30.

Sen. Gravel was a voice of reason, along with the more wildly popular vote-getter in the polls, Dennis Kucinich. Together they were the coalition of the sane in the so-called debates. Whenever he managed to squeeze a word in edge-wise, Gravel made sense.

His theory is he made too much sense before Philadelphia. He thinks that the war profiteers, as he called GE, which owns NBC, is behind the conspiracy to drop him from the cast of presidential hopefuls because he was critical of Saint Hillary for her Iran vote.

If Kucinich gets short shrift in the current debate format, that's a lot compared to Gravel's no shrift. Whatever "shrift" is, he hasn't got it.

The same sword of Demosthenes is hanging over Kucinich as the field tightens and the bosses in the smoke-filled rooms begin dumping the also-rans after Iowa.

Trimming the number of candidates, as painful as it may be for fans of dissident voices, still doesn't deal with the current debate format's basic flaw: each candidate doesn't get to address the same issue raised by the moderator. In tomorrow's case, it's once again Mr. Charisma, Wolf Blitzer, playing spin the bottle.

Isn't there a better way to handle these faces in the crowd debates? I'm glad I asked that question. I happen to have a way to run debates that are fair and balanced, if you'll pardon the expression.

Right now the debating season is comparable to NASCAR events. Everybody roars around the track every few weeks, until they run out of gas, i.e. money.

The Kitman Plan (pat. pending) calls for a presidential playoff system, a formula based on the U.S. Tennis Open. Like tennis players, candidates will be seeded, based on the latest polls, money raised or whatever criteria news media judges them.

"Tomorrow night," the CNN promo could have been shouting the last few months, "it's third-seeded John Edwards vs. number-five seed Chris Dodd. And don't miss number-two seed Obama against sixth-seeded Dennis Kucinich." Coming soon: Joe Biden (No. 4) against Mike Gravel (Unseeded).

The number-one seed, Hillary Clinton has a bye for the first round. But she will be debating the winner of the playoff between the winners of the first two debates the next night.

Each candidate gets to debate all the other candidates in a round-robin scoring system. Matches will be scheduled by drawing from the hat candidates threw into the ring the day after the last Inaugural Address in 2004, or whenever the campaign started. Each debate will last thirty minutes until we get to the quarterfinals, which can run 45 minutes. Semi-finals runs an hour, and finals, 90 minutes.

Tennis may be too elitist. Think of it as that other national pastime, major league baseball playoff system.

Whatever the model, candidates are required to debate each other one-on- one. The way the actual debate works is as follows:

Two candidates enter a studio. There is no audience. No moderators. No panel of star correspondents or pundits. No questions or videos from focus groups. A toss of the coin determines who gets to make an opening statement:

"My worthy opponent is a liar on...(fill in the issue du jour). And here's why...."

Then the other candidate rebuts:

"My worthy opponent is full of baloney. Let me tell you why..."

By agreement, the two candidates can suspend the rules on the time limit. They can go after each other on issues of their choosing as long as they want. Or until the confrontation is in danger of turning into, dare we say it, a real debate.

Wouldn't this be hard to judge who won?

If you can score a Westminster dog show, Olympic gymnastics and figure ice-skating, you can't tell me it would be any more difficult than speechifying. One method would be a panel of judges, composed of self-acclaimed experts, including Wolf Blitzer, George Stephanapolous, Brit Hume, Tim Russert and Anderson Cooper for the 18-to-18 ¼ demo so crucial in an election.

Judges might hold up cardboards at the end of the debate-- 6.0. 5.4, 3.9 etc. -having duly judged on the basis of rhetorical answers or their own biases.

As a back up, like the Electoral College vs. the popular vote, I propose the phones be open, a form of voting that works so well in the other more important national election, American Idol.

The Kitman Plan is especially useful during the post- primary period when candidates of one party would face off against winner of the other party's playoffs.

The final best of four out of seven championship event would determine the winner of the presidential debates, for what they are worth when voters eventually go to the polls. At least, they will have been able to compare where the candidates stand, or sit, on the issues.

Admittedly more thought has to go into this radical plan to allow dissident voices like Mike Gravel a chance to have their say. I will leave it to the non-partisan League of Women Voters-- who invented in 1972 the current glorified press conferences that allow candidates to escape unscathed or scathed--to establish definitive rules acceptable to all candidates for the 2012 election. Whatever the rules, they have to be better than the game of charades we now have in the name of debates.