Wanted: Obama-Boehner Midterm Debates

If President Obama has any sense, he'll do more than go to Ohio on Wednesday and give a speech about the economy. His expected proposal—to make permanent the research and development tax credit for business—is overdue, expensive ($100 billion over 10 years) and about as politically exciting as a vacation to Moldavia with your accountant.

As long as he's venturing onto would-be House Speaker John Boehner's turf, Obama might as well challenge him to debates this fall on the future of the country. Because they would be unprecedented, he could call them "Midterm Discussions" to ease people into the idea.

I had originally favored "Speaker Debates" between Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, but this election is more accurately seen as a choice between Boehner and Obama. Or it could be Obama and Joe Biden versus Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The president should say something to the effect of, "It's on, guys."

For Democrats, the advantages are obvious: the debate would electrify (and possibly reshape) the political environment and allow the president a chance to do what he has done poorly so far, which is to frame the choice. To me, it's a simple one: rebuild America (with public-private infrastructure projects to put the middle class back to work) versus more tax cuts for those making over $1 million. It would also give Obama a chance to make the cases for further tax cuts for all but the rich.

Most likely, the GOP will decline to participate. Obama and Biden should then debate empty chairs. Forget all the gibes about this being unpresidential. It's an old-fashioned gimmick that often works. Republicans would look bad for dodging and would find themselves on the defensive, where they have rarely been lately.

But if Boehner and McConnell are smart, they'll say yes. First, the expectations would be so low that the event or events are all but guaranteed to be graded a tie. That would be a big win for the GOP. Second, the Republican policy of obstruction is in danger of stalling this fall, well before the election. They need to show voters they stand for something positive. A debate is a good place to do so.

Beyond the TV networks, the big winners of Midterm Debates would be voters, who would learn some facts about what has actually been proposed and enacted to go along with all the usual opinions they hear. As we learned in 2008, debates are more substantive than the normal cable chatter. Just as quadrennial presidential debates are a plus (except that there are too many during the primaries), Midterm Debates would send an important signal about the importance of Congress in American politics. They might even improve turnout a bit. If nothing else, these fresh contests would add a little zip to October.