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Wednesday was a bad night. It was the night America’s circus-show model of presidential debates proved a mockery, as CNBC’s hosts threw out nothing but one “gotcha” question after another, without any pretense of trying to be fair and unbiased. Granted, conservatives never tire of complaining about media bias, so their complaints may be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering that they think Megyn Kelly is too liberal for their tastes. But when none other than former DNC chairman and current VA Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) calls it unfair and compares the debate to “The Gong Show,” you know there are some issues.

Now, politicians should expect tough questions in these things. But that debate was just stupid, unfair, and full of “have you stopped beating your wife” questions that are completely unhelpful in illustrating policy divides, showcasing personalities and winnowing out weak candidates. Some lowlights included:

  • Insulting Ben Carson about Mannatech. While that is a legitimate issue, lines such as “Does that not speak about your vetting process or judgment in any way?” are not.
  • Calling Trump’s campaign “a comic book version of a presidential campaign” on national TV. Trump remains the frontrunner after many months, like it or not, and childish lines like this reinforce stereotypes of a media hostile not just to Republican politicians, but also to Republican voters.
  •  Whining about how Trump and Carson forced the debate to just two hours. Airing such a petty grievance while “moderating” a debate is ridiculously unprofessional and arrogant.
  • Going after Rubio for his missed Senate votes, when his record here was not as bad as that of John McCain or, um, Hillary Clinton.

The fact that the moderators are liberal is no excuse. The hosts of the various Sunday political shows are liberal other than at FoxNews, but they generally handle their jobs fairly, professionally, and without too much complaint from Republicans. I would say that they were as unfair as if the chair of the DNC was moderator, except, as McAuliffe proved, even that low bar was not cleared.

cnbc podiumBut that debacle goes to the heart of our broken debate system. Ten podiums, all facing the audience, feels like ten separate press conferences at once rather than a true debate with back-and-forth. The networks claim to love it when the candidates go after each other. So why not encourage that instead of having 90% of the verbiage consist of candidate vs. moderator?

Here’s an idea: have the candidates ask each other questions.

For one thing, they certainly can’t be worse than that CNBC panel. Even if they tried to sink that low, it would just come back and bite themselves in the ass for such pettiness — witness Rubio’s easy takedown of Jeb on the missed-votes thing. Such exchanges are just as much a test of the questioner as the answerer. Are they asking tough but fair questions, or are they descending into unpresidential bickering and backbiting? Do they ask questions about things the viewers care about, or about some micro-scandal that won’t last beyond a couple news cycles?

It would go like this. The moderator throws out a general topic like taxes or Syria, and lets a candidate go first with a statement on his policy. Then candidate B, randomly chosen, gets a chance to respond with a question — if she declines, it goes to candidate C, and if he declines, next topic. But if candidate B asks a question, candidate A may respond and then ask another question of B or of any other candiate, who replies and then sends out another question to anyone she wants. This continues until two people decline to respond, or an arbitrary time limit expires, after which, next topic.

The moderators would have three main functions: A) Give the initial topic of conversation. B) Observe time limits. C) Try to police people jumping in out of turn, or stopping the worst or most irrelevant counter-questions. If candidate A is asked about abortion, and candidate B then asks him a question about trade policy or else asks about his history of drug use while in college, the moderators would jump in to redirect.

If there is a major scandal in one of the campaigns, then that could be a topic of conversation. But Rubio’s missed votes question does not rise to that level, nor does the question of whether Trump’s campaign is “comic-book.” And anyway, 90% of topics should not be attacks like this no matter what. How about a debate over ISIS instead of a debate over Jeb Bush’s fantasy football picks?

Such a debate would be both more interesting and more entertaining, which could only benefit the networks as well as the candidates. Trump would be truly unleashed, and he’s the golden goose for networks that host the debates since he’s why people tune in. At the same time, someone like Cruz would be testing Bush’s mettle with real questions about his warmongering stance rather than his poll numbers or some such trifle. Candidate-focused debates. A novel concept, but a strong one.

Let’s make debate great again!