Tuesday, October 7, 2008

And the loser is...

Obama. McCain. You. Me. Everyone. Let's face it---whether you're for Obama, for McCain, or somehow happen to be one of those hard-to-believe undecideds that may yet decide this election, these debates tell us very little about what we need to know in this election. Three 90-minute debates in a very scripted setting with limp questions and with limp moderators who function as nothing more than school crossing guards do not lead to elevated and enlightened discourse on the matters of our day.

The rules for these debates are haggled over and negotiated behind closed doors, all with the intention of giving their candidate whatever edge they can attain. If you're a better speaker...you angle for more debates. If you're folksy...you try for more town hall-style forums. If you're lacking experience...you might want a podium to give you added stature. The wrangling over the details is relentless. The end result ends up being a heavily-insulated atmosphere where no candidate is at much risk, and where each candidate has significant freedom to bob and weave their way out of a question they simply don't like. Sure, a voter can gleam some information from how a candidate elects to answer (or not answer) a question, but the substance is minuscule. To date myself a bit (since nobody else will--snap!), these debates have me sounding like Clara Peller and asking, "Where's the beef?"

I don't agree with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on much, but I do support his idea of having no fewer than nine debates between the respective nominees of each party with each debate focusing intensely on just one major issue. Too much? In a reality-tv-oriented-world that has the attention span of a spider monkey on crack, yes. It's too much. It's too wonkish. Too...(gasp)...informative. And yet, as the historic ratings for these largely uneventful debates illustrate, the American voter is thirsty for political discussion. Sure, a large part of that thirst is purely for entertainment value. I guarantee you a lot of people were watching the Palin debate for the same reason so many people watch NASCAR races. Hint---it's not to see her go round and round in a circle. But if the people want to see the candidates "debate" their ideas, then the candidates have an obligation to do just that. After nine one-hour debates on the important subjects of our day, it would be impossible to not know which candidate's vision for the future most closely resembled your own. Voters would be better informed. Candidates would need to rely less on empty talking points. And, most importantly, the culture of discourse would forever be changed.

While I have always been a fan of Meet The Press, I'd be the first person to admit that the late Tim Russert would often oversimplify a complicated subject...hammering away for a simple "yes" or "no" to a question that no sane politician would dare answer with one word. That said, going before Tim Russert was a true test for a politician because Russert was always prepared. He was ready to call "bullshit" the second he heard it, able to use the explicit text of a guest's previous words to contradict what they might be saying on that particular visit to the studio. He knew the talking points by heart and, more often than not, would not let his guests off the hook so easily. He was persistent. Dogged. The result was either the successful mining of a nugget of new truth heretofore untold, or the exposure of his guest as a talking head unwilling or unable to say anything substantive. If there's one thing this election needs right now (more than nine loosely-structured debates, I mean), it's a no-holds-barred sit-down with Russert and Obama and McCain all at the same table.

Failing a successful resurrection of Russert, these debates desperately need a moderator who is willing to take charge---not to enforce the rules agreed to by the campaigns---but to force the candidates to answer the questions they're asked...or pay the price by being made to look silly and standoffish. Honestly, what's the worst that can happen if the venerable Tom Brokaw grows a pair and on live TV deviates from the rules to call "bullshit" on one of the many false characterizations that either candidate routinely makes? Are the candidates not going to answer? In front of 60 million people? The worst thing is that Tom Brokaw is never asked back to moderate a debate. But since all he does anyway is read five-word questions sent in from the internet, what's the loss? It's an absurdity that these are the debates we as citizens get...and an even greater absurdity that we accept it.

To be fair, Barack Obama, the candidate for whom I will cast my vote on November 4th, was opposed to John McCain's suggestion of ten "town hall" styled debates. I won't parse his decision. I simply think he was wrong. Surely he could have negotiated something with McCain that would have been acceptable. Maybe eight? Or six? But no. After appearing in twenty-two debates during the Democratic primary he said enough was enough. Again, I disagree with that decision. There may be more to the story than I'm aware of, but if there's ever a choice between more debate or less, I'm going with more.

We get one more debate to see these candidates go head to head. You know what the exciting change is for the third debate? They sit at a table! Now we're really going to figure out what makes these guys tick.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home