If you have to tell them to address each other directly, the new format is coming up short.

We can make cracks all we want about politicians acting like little brats more often than they actually act like the courageous leaders we hope they’ll be when we cast votes for them, but, still, isn’t there something childishly demeaning about the current attempts to continually make the presidential debates less stodgy and formal than they used to be?

    That’s not saying the debates of days gone by are the preferred route. You know, where each candidate gets a timed opening statement, and then each candidate gets a certain amount of time to answer questions they’ve been told about beforehand, and the candidate’s opponent gets a certain amount of time to offer up a rebuttal, which really isn’t a rebuttal at all, but is simply a chance to state the candidate’s various positions on various issues for the umpteenth time. Too often under that format, the candidates might as well not have been sharing the same stage, given how little they even made eye contact with each other or acknowledged the other candidate’s presence only a few feet away.

    But the current efforts to shake things up a bit aren’t going far enough. When PBS’s own Jim Lehrer on multiple occasions during last Wednesday night’s first debate between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney asked one of them if he would like to ask the other a direct question, or challenge the other candidate directly on an answer given by the candidate, Lehrer was less like the moderator of an important debate with tremendous national significance, and more like a playground supervisor forced into action when two kids get into a tussle during recess.

    “Jimmy, do you have something to say to Billy?” the playground supervisor says, with a hand on each of their shoulders, making them face each other near the monkey bars.

    “I’m sorry,” Jimmy mutters, barely audible.

    “And Billy, what do you have to say to Jimmy?” the supervisor says.

    “I forgive you,” Billy replies, begrudgingly.

    Just let the reins on Obama and Romney go. If you don’t want a stilted, stiff, formal debate with a couple of wax sculptures sticking to their talking points, then just let them go at it. Don’t waste the time of 60 million American viewers with barely modified stump speeches both candidates know by heart. Give them a topic, say it’ll last 15 minutes. Let one guy have the first say and let the other guy respond, and then let them face each other and challenge each other. Let them try to interrupt each other. Let them raise their voices, if necessary. If they go over their 15 minutes, give them some leeway. Then, when the topic is exhausted and they’re both repeating themselves ad nauseam, move onto the next topic, with 15 more minutes, and let them go again.

    Why not? Obama and Romney, whether they’ve “approved this message” or not, are tearing each other apart in campaign ads, so why should they have to pretend to be reasonably chummy just because they’re standing on stage?

    Our election system lost most of its dignity, honor and class a long time ago. Why should the presidential debates be any different? The voters deserve a candid, real conversation.