President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after the debate at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida.National Journal

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Erick Erickson, the RedState.com editor who The Atlantic called "the most powerful conservative in America," has a brilliant idea. For his annual RedState Gathering in Atlanta, he issued strict instructions to GOP presidential candidates addressing the group. 

I have asked each of the 2016 candidates to focus on one thing: If they become president, their reelection would be in 2020. I'd like them to present their 2020 vision for what the nation should look like after their first four years. We do not need Obama-bashing. We need to know what they would do differently and how they would shape the nation. They should be elected not on their ability to bash the opposition, but their ability to sell a vision for the future that resonates with the base and the nation as a whole.

It's a great concept—and organizers of the general election debates should steal it.

Force presidential candidates to dispense with their button-pushing talking points and face the challenges of 2020 and beyond. Put them on record with first- and second-term promises. Challenge them to think through and articulate the multiple stages of problem-solving. Make them publicly grapple with tensions between short-term gains and long-term needs. Encourage them to describe their theories on leadership and management.

Size them up—not just as athletes in a horse race, but as what they aim to be: President.

The Commission on Presidential Debates should set aside one matchup in which the candidates can't attack each other. Instead, play by Erickson's rules. "We do not, right now, need a 50-point plan," he said of his August 6 through August 8 gathering. "We need to know what they see as the areas that need fixing and how their fixes will reshape the country."

The commission needs a fresh idea or two. Overseeing general-election debates since 1988, the panel of 17 respected public figures chaired by Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Mike McCurry is accused of sidelining independent candidates.

Nonmajor-party candidates must receive 15 percent support in five separate polls conducted shortly before the debates to earn a spot onstage, under CPD rules. A new national campaign, Change the Rule, wants to lower the standard, opening debates to a candidate who gets on the ballot in states with a total of 270 electoral votes.

If more than one candidate hits that target, Change the Rule would give the nod to the person who amasses the most signatures as part of the ballot-access process. The bipartisan group of more than 40 current and former elected officials estimates a candidate would need at least 4 million signatures to hit the threshold.

The CPD rules are too restrictive. They perpetuate the major-party duopoly. The Change the Rule proposal is the starting point of a compromise that should open the debates to a candidate outside the Democratic and Republican parties, whose favorability ratings are now at record lows.

"Because the current rule affords independent candidates no change to get into the debates," Change the Rule organizers wrote to the commission, "it dissuades men and women with extraordinary records of service in this country from running for president."

And now, thanks to Erickson, we've got a new approach to the debates themselves: Force the candidates to shed their scripted attacks and address this nation's uncertain future.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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