Have debates outlived their usefulness?

This has been a pretty tough year to be a moderator or questioner in a political debate. So far Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw, and Jim Lehrer have been fairly ineffective — bordering on disinterested — in getting the presidential and vice presidential candidates to answer the questions they’ve been asked. And the questions themselves — other than “What don’t you know what’s your plan for knowing it” have been generally lacking in imagination.

In the Minnesota Senate debate on Saturday night, the KARE 11 and Star Tribune questioners wasted almost 90 minutes asking the same questions that were asked a week earlier, and, not surprisingly, they got the same answers.

In most cases, in fact, the best questions have been the ones the audience — not the moderators — asked (in the last presidential debate, the majority of questions came from online submissions).

On Saturday night, the best question was one that asked the three candidates what book or film inspired them. Norm Coleman went with the tried-and-true answer: Profiles in Courage. Al Franken selected “A Bright Shining Lie” and Dean Barkley selected “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

An even better audience question was the one that told us the most about the candidates. Asked what current Supreme Court justice he admires most, Dean Barkley couldn’t seem to remember any of them and took a pass.

But what’s really surprising is that over three hours of questioning by moderators, only subject areas were approached: The bailout (certainly a significant issue), creating jobs, Social Security, energy independence, nukes in Iran, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What other issues are still sitting out there? Education? Funding special needs mandates. Immigration. Stem cell research. Or the one issue that the people taking our Select A Candidate quiz have said is their most important issue: health care. Minnesota is, technically, an ag state. There must be issues of interest to agricultural interests other than ethanol.

The next Senate debate is Thursday night in Duluth. In the meantime, MPR’s Gary Eichten is giving people the chance to question voters directly. Yesterday it was Norm Coleman. Today it’s Al Franken. Dean Barkley was on last Friday.

Generally speaking, the political debates have broken little new ground. Have they outlived their usefulness? Have the negotiations with candidates and debate sponsors wrung the very life out of them?