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Geraghty: War games, not debates

Brace yourself: Seven Republican presidential debates are scheduled in the next four months, and even more may be added.

Brace yourself: Seven Republican presidential debates are scheduled in the next four months, and even more may be added.

After two or three, the questions and answers are going to sound depressingly similar and predictable. Ah, yes, you'll cut taxes and spending. You'll respond decisively to foreign threats. Yawn.

With primary debates including so little debate and so much rehearsed recitation of stale sound bites, it's time to shake things up. What could give primary voters a clearer perspective of a candidate's thinking and decision-making? What would best give a sense of how each would perform as president?

How about war-gaming?

For the last decade, quite a few government agencies have honed their crisis-management abilities by running fictional scenarios, trying to respond as they would in real life, and evaluating their responses afterward.

Nonprofit research organizations such as the Institute for Homeland Security and Bipartisan Policy Center already run these sorts of exercises, often with the participation of influential leaders such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Sen. Sam Nunn, former CIA Director James Woolsey, and former presidential adviser David Gergen. Last week'sjuly 12-13 National Summit on Energy Security in Washington featured "Oil ShockWave," described as "a fast-paced war-game simulation" in which participants "grapple with spiraling oil prices and geopolitical turmoil delivered in a lifelike environment."

In fact, news networks have sponsored such events. In February 2010, CNN was host to "Cyber-Shockwave," a simulation of how the government would handle cyber-warfare, featuring former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former White House adviser Frances Townsend, and former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

Inevitably, some presidential contenders would balk at the idea; during the last presidential cycle, a disturbing number of candidates opted for the blanket response "I don't answer hypothetical questions," an appallingly hypocritical stance from individuals asking voters to contemplate the hypothetical scenario of their presidency.

Candidates may fear — with good reason — that during the scenario, their decision to wait for further intelligence, or their tense communiqué to a foreign leader, or their authorization of military action could blow up with disastrous fictional results. Unlike the debates, where a candidate can filibuster and dodge, scenario players would lose control of how they appeared to the audience. But that's also how things work in real life. A president has to take in the information, evaluate the best advice of his most trusted advisers, and make a decision.

In these war games, candidates would bring their top advisers to play the secretaries of defense and state or national security adviser. Organizers could "cast" retired military brass as nonappointed Pentagon officials and regional experts as heads of foreign states, designated opponents, interested third parties, and so on. And for two or three hours, we would see how the aspiring presidents responded to:

The revelation that the Iranian government is planning to test a nuclear device.

Aggressive moves by the Chinese military in the Taiwan Strait.

Mexico's approaching failed-state status as a result of cartel-related violence.

The assassination of a key head of state in the Middle East, triggering violent protests throughout the region.

Or any other plausible, tense crisis that could occur after Jan. 20, 2013.

One debate last cycle came close to this concept. In May 2007, Fox News' Brit Hume told the GOP contenders: "The questions in this round will be premised on a fictional, but we think plausible, scenario involving terrorism and the response to it. Here is the premise: Three shopping centers near major U.S. cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured. A fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured off the Florida coast and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they are being questioned. U.S. intelligence believes that another, larger attack is planned and could come at any time. …

"How aggressively would you interrogate those being held at Guantanamo Bay for information about where the next attack might be?" (All of the candidates answered with variations of "pretty darn aggressively," although Sen. John McCain cautioned: "That is a million-to-one scenario.")

Done correctly, a war game could be enormously revealing about a candidate's decision-making process, as well as fantastic television. When the current format has devolved to the point where we're asking Tim Pawlenty whether he prefers Coke or Pepsi, it's time to try something outside the box.

Jim Geraghty is a contributing editor at National Review magazine and regularly appears on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. E-mail him at