There was a point, about 36 minutes into the debate between Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith and Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley, when the debate threatened to become an actual debate.
They had got into a question about tax policy, and they were into sluggo mode, as Merkley warned that "Gordon Smith wants to give away the bank to the wealthiest and most powerful, and Smith countered that "You're gonna have to prepare yourself for a bait and switch" on Merkley's part (tlking about not rising taxes and then voting for them).
Then, as the topic morphed into the national debate and the bailout, Merkley asked - directly of Smith - "Do you understand that our children are going to have to pay" for the debt being amassed?
It was a direct comment, candidate to candidate, something the rules didn't contemplate, but no one objected when Smith replied back - directly - "So what would you have me do, Jeff?" The alternatives, he warned, could be economically devastating.
Then - again, rules be damned - Merkley directly shot back: Smith should say no, "the next time that powerful international corporations" want tax cuts: That money should be used for health care and other needs of working people. In the meantime, "This economy has been run into the ground."
It went on from there.
It was a surface exchange, and it didn't occupy even two minutes of the debate, but it was riveting: Two intelligent candidates putting forth their ideas on a subject of critical importance and usefully skewering, where they could, their opponent's take. It was high drama, and an hour's worth of such exchanges would have been educational as well as wonderfully enlightening about which candidate had more on the ball.
For the most part, we got - and this is the structural part - something less useful, the "press conference" debate format, which envisioned no interaction between the candidates and only short, canned answers to questions.
[NOTE As of about 90 minutes post-debate, the Oregonian's on-line poll - self-selecting - had Smith winning the debate, 54%-40%.]
But enough hard feelings have developed in this race, so many negative TV spots and so many shots back and forth and from scattered sources, that the candidates often seemed right on the edge of busting through those rules. Both of them were tense and stiff at the debate's opening; close to halfway through, Smith seemed to ease up and talk more colloquially, and soon after Merkley did too. Maybe the tension eventually needed some release. (more…)