At least they really debated

When or if the McCain-Obama debate takes place on Sept. 26, and ditto for the Palin-Biden faceoff on Oct. 2, little of the fulsome rhetoric will resemble the statesmanlike duels classically understood as debating. What we call "debates" today are nothing but joint press conferences, with journalists asking the questions and virtually no direct cross-examination or swordplay between the candidates themselves. Lincoln and Douglas would laugh these guys to Springfield and back.

Kudos, therefore, to a radio listeners' club called the Colorado Prager Fans, aided by DU Prof. Corey Ciocchetti as moderator, for staging a real debate Monday night at South High in Denver between talk show host Dennis Prager of Los Angeles and local lefty writer David Sirota, Philly boy turned Coloradan by way of Montana.

"What's Better for America: Liberal or Conservative Ideas?" was the topic, and the protagonists with Cocchetti's help kept it lively, meaty, and mostly civil for two hours before a packed hall of over 1200. While the central issue wasn't in keeping with strict debate procedure, which poses a proposition to be affirmed by one side and negated by the other, what I liked was the relentless slugging match between Sirota on the left and Prager on the right, with plenty of thrust and parry, jabs and counterpunches. It was utterly unlike the stiff and sterile yawners we'll get this fall from the Presidential Debate Commission.

The organizers were also imaginative, and the two principals admirably resourceful, in reducing their vast topic to six big areas with an eight-point buffet under each of them, from which each debater could graze at will during his 2x4 minutes of remarks. Do the math and you'll see that meant the audience -- a thousand-plus conservatives versus Ken Gordon, Wade Buchanan, and a few dozen other liberals, to judge from applause -- heard 16 glorious minutes of intense crossfire under each of the main areas.

Those were, if you're wondering... racial issues and policies... the economy... freedom of speech... culture issues... foreign policy and defense... and America's reputation in the world.

Who won? That probably depended on who you asked. In the post just below this, Ken Davenport writes up the affair as if Prager had mopped the floor with Sirota, but I didn't see it that way. Though David was bobbing and weaving and using the ropes much of the time like an overmatched boxer, he fought gamely, showed remarkable spirit and stage presence, seemed unfazed by the lopsided crowd reaction, and landed his share of punches. When I saw Gordon next day and asked how he though his guy had done, the Senate leader and seasoned courtroom attorney didn't say "Ouch" as one might do after a wipeout. He said good show, and I agree.

Substantively, of course, I agree with most of Ken Davenport's observations about the superiority of Prager's arguments at the debate, and about the formulaic hollowness we perceived in many of Sirota's lines -- but I allow that some of this may be perception alone on our part as conservatives. Talk to someone from the other side and you might get the opposite verdict.

"Where are all the conservatives, anyway?" asked David Sirota at one point -- in relation to spending, or the bailout, or civil liberties, or intervention abroad, I forget which -- and it was a telling shot. Prager actually got his bell rung at that moment, though the big guy (big physically and with outsize self-confidence to match) didn't realize it at all. He just went happily along, as befits radio's leading happiness maven.

David also scored, I thought, with his comment that liberal-conservative does not always align these days with Democrat-Republican, but here too Prager declined to engage. Each man mentioned the neo-conservatives once or twice, and it would have been illuminating -- if no great crowd-pleaser -- to hear them thoughtfully discuss that over-demonized but under-analyzed aspect of today's ideological landscape. David hewed closely all evening to his self-description as a progressive, not a liberal, but the onrushing format distracted him from explaining what the difference is, as he promised to do at the outset. I'd really like to know.

Bottom line, it was an edifying as well as entertaining occasion no matter which side you were pulling for, and I again congratulate the sponsors as well as the protagonists. At least they really debated.