The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Fixing the "Debates"

In this column, the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Huntley argues that presidential "debates" (really joint press conferences) have turned into "cheap theatre" that is "debasing our electoral process." He'll get no argument here. The Centerman has thought as much for a long, long time.

Huntley blames all this on the loss of a role for the League of Women Voters, but that's wrong. The League-sponsored general election debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not substantially different than the general election debates sponsored since then by the party-dominated Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The format is remarkably the same, with a panel of journalists asking questions of the two major party nominees (and, if those nominees consent, a third party candidate, as in the Reagan-Anderson League-sponsored debate in 1980 and the Bush-Clinton-Perot Commission-sponsored debates in 1992). The questioning seems no better or worse. Moreover, the primary debates are not sponsored by the CPD, but by a variety of organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, the Des Moines Register, the South Carolina Democratic Party, and a host of news organizations. Similarly, way back in what Huntley imagines to be the halcyon years of League sponsorship, the primary debates were not sponsored by the League, but by media and other organizations. Ronald Reagan's famous moment, when he refused to allow the moderator to cut him off, took the microphone and stated "I'm paying for this microphone," came in a debate sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph.

The problem is the format itself, which is, as noted, really that of a joint press conference. The candidates don't actually debate much. Rather, a substantial portion of the "debate" time is given over to the journalists who asks the questions, and the candidates are limited to ridiculously short answers that are an invitation to offer canned soundbites and regurgitate campaign lines, rather than engage in deeper substance. These problems are amplified in the primaries, wherein as many as nine candidates must be squeezed in to the program, with the Mike Gravels, Dennis Kuciniches, Ron Pauls, and Tom Tancredos being treated as seriously as the Rudy Giulianis, John McCains, Mitt Romneys, Hillary Clintons, and Barack Obamas.

There are several reasons for this, and unfortunately, there is not a lot to do about it. First and foremost is the candidates themselves. Candidates, not surprisingly, insist on controlling every element of the debates that they can to assure that they are not placed at a disadvantage. Thus, over the years candidates have negotiated everything from podium heights, so that Geraldine Ferraro and Michael Dukakis did not look too small, and so that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had the same amount of torso showing, to the identities of their inquisitors and the format for asking quesitons. This is to be expected. A change will come only when candidates think it will cost them more to skip a debate than to participate in one in which they do not agree with every such element of staging and format.

Similarly, assuring maximum coverage and promotion of the debates requires media complicity in those debates. Particularly in an era of cable and satellite, when viewers have many options to debates and, in fact, broadcasters can often do better with reruns of reality TV programs than debates, there is no reason for broadcasters to cover a debate from which they are excluded. So we can expect to continue to see attention hogging hosts who, as Huntley correctly notes, have as much or more interest in provoking on-stage theatre and fireworks as substantive discourse.

Finally, campaign finance laws hinder better debates. Campaign finance laws require that candidates be treated more or less equally, or otherwise the event will be viewed as a contribution by the sponsor to the participating candidates. Under the law, a debate sponsor can set criteria for participation, but it must be even-handed. A university sponsoring a debate, for example, cannot decide to exclude Mike Gravel, who has no chance of ever being president, while including Joe Biden, a more legitimate candidate, unless in accordance with a set of pre-determined criteria that is not designed for the purpose of excluding Gravel. So it is difficult in the primary stage to really whittle the field.

Having said all this, what we pass off as debates do actually seem to inform viewers. They are, it seems, better than nothing. But we would offer two modest ideas - ideas which, for the reasons just stated, we know will not be adopted:

1. Primary debates should focus on specific topic areas. There is little point in watching former Democratic Press Secretary Chris Matthews ask all the Republicans about abortion, and then watching former Democratic Press Secretary George Stephanopolous ask all the Republican candidates about abortion, etc. The debates could be become more focused simply by agreeing to topics. One debate could be limited to Iraq and the War on Terror - abroad. One could be limited to domestic civil liberties and homeland security. One debate could be limited to tax and fiscal policy. One could be limited to social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. One could be limited to health care.

2. Rather than take questions from journalists (or internet audiences), let's have a series of resolutions framed that can actually be debated, pro and con. I do not suggest that this would be easy, but it would be possible. Resolved: The Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. How tough is that? This would be most effective in the general election, where presumably it would be easier to set up pro and con stances for the candidates. In the primaries, to frame the issues broadly: we want an exchange on tax policy, or health care policy, with each candidate given a few minutes to speak, followed by a moderated crossfire.

Well, it ain't gonna happen, so time to get back to work.

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