The aftermath of Monday's inclusive New York gubernatorial debate, which spotlighted all seven candidates who'll appear on the November ballot, raises questions about the need for balance between inclusiveness and seriousness. The talk of the night and day after the debate, when not focused on the two major-party candidates, focused on James McMillan, the flamboyant candidate of the "Rent is 2 Damn High" party, who was said to have stolen the show with his eccentric appearance and mantric insistence on the driving issue of his campaign. For some observers, McMillan's performance proved that inclusive debates were a bad idea, since his time took away from whatever they considered the crucial questions of the race. A disillusioned Carl Paladino, who had insisted upon an inclusive debate, decided afterward that the format was "terrible," apparently because he expected all the other candidates to join him in attacking Andrew Cuomo. Some, notably Charles Barron and Howie Hawkins, embraced the task, but Paladino seems to feel that any time spent not attacking Cuomo at Hofstra was wasted time. He reflects an attitude expressed in many places that the subject for debate Monday should have been the front-runner's qualifications for office, not the full range of options for the state's political future. Meanwhile, even people who applauded the debate's inclusiveness could be troubled by the focus on McMillan at the expense of more credible independents like Barron, Hawkins and Warren Redlich. But to express reservations about McMillan (or Kristin Davis) begs the question of anyone's qualification to dismiss a duly accredited candidate as frivolous or a crank before a larger audience of voters gets to judge. We don't want some censorious counterpart of Iran's Guardian Council to decide whether people otherwise qualified are actually unfit (by what standard?) to run for office. But if the joint appearances we call political debates are to be meaningful, shouldn't there be a way to insure a more substantive discussion of the issues and choices facing the electorate?
Inclusive debates require some revamping of the debate format to avoid the conditions under which the Hofstra event will likely be the only and thus inevitably disappointing occasion when any of the candidates confront one another. If we want to commit to debates as essential to informed voting, every accredited candidate -- those with automatic ballot lines and those who meet the petition threshold -- must commit to a sequence of debates.
How should the sequence work? For those who think that the only proper debate format is one-on-one, the ideal might be a round-robin format in which each candidate faces off against each of his or her rivals one at a time, so that Paladino, Barron, Hawkins et al each get an individual shot at Cuomo but also have to debate each other along the way. The likely flaw in this approach is the likelihood that most voters won't bother tuning in for any debate in which the Democrat or the Republican candidate isn't involved.
An alternative debate schedule might incorporate some of the principles of so-called reality (i.e. "unscripted") TV, particularly the principle of audience elimination as practised on American Idol. In this format, all accredited candidates would appear in an inaugural debate -- which, to be fair to all participants, should be longer than subsequent encounters. Afterward, registered voters would be encouraged to call in or log in and determine which candidate would be eliminated from the later debates.
A candidate could be eliminated in one of two ways. It could be done simply by eliminating the candidate who gets the fewest positive votes from viewers, or viewers could vote expressly to eliminate a most-disliked candidate. Either method is vulnerable to abuse by irresponsible voters. The popularity-contest model runs the risk of what those with a little historical memory will recognize as a "Sanjaya" effect, in which transgressive jackasses conspire to promote an objectively unqualified yet perversely entertaining candidate. In our present context, the worst-case scenario could be Howard Stern fans or other trolls pooling their votes for McMillan after every debate until he made the final round. It might not improve his chances of actually winning the real election, but it would go a long way toward discrediting this debate format. On the other hand, if we have the audience vote against a candidate, we can anticipate that the first person eliminated would most likely come from one of the major parties, thanks to collusion between acolytes of the other major party and independents or pure trolls. While hardcore critics of the Bipolarchy might not object to such a result, it would most likely undermine the credibility of the remaining debates until viewers grow more accustomed to independents dominating the spotlight. In either case, the possibility of viewer/voters not behaving objectively is a cause for concern, but since that's never stopped us from having elections, we probably shouldn't worry too much when the stakes are lower. We might make the stakes higher for the candidates themselves by linking participation in the debate series to a self-imposed limit or outright renunciation of campaign advertising, but the viability of that idea is probably a subject for another time.