All of the media buzz has been about who won, who didn?t, and who scored points in the three presidential debates. After the first, Kerry had momentum, so said the press. After the third, Bush had it. Why such a fuss over the debates? We?re not electing a debater-in-chief. We?re electing a president and commander-in-chief. The candidate who is best qualified is not necessarily the best performer. He?s the one with the best record and disposition?regardless of debating skills.
Some pundits and many bloggers on the Internet pointed to the problem in the debates of form over substance and our shift from being a word-oriented culture to being an image-oriented culture. They have it completely right. As media critic, the late Neil Postman wrote, ?If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty, but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.?
When people are deciding who is going to be president, they should look at the candidates? records?that is, what they?ve accomplished, what they?ve stood for, how they?ve voted, their character, their deepest beliefs, and their convictions. These identify who they are and what they?re made of. In the area of character my primary concern is veracity. Are they truth-tellers, and do they respect the truth?
In order to evaluate substance over style and get to the truth, you?ve got to strip away all the smoke that is blown into the air during the campaigns. For example, campaign promises: By the end of the debates, I was out of breath. I thought that if we added up all the dollars promised per hour-and-a-half debate, we?d have 90 trillion dollars in new programs. It?s obvious that they can?t fulfill all these promises.
Then there?s the blame game. I thought the height of absurdity was reached in the last debate when Bob Schieffer asked the president what he was going to do about the shortage in flu vaccines. The fact is the president can?t be held responsible for the shortage, because a British manufacturer had a contaminated lot. And the president isn?t responsible for every job that is lost either. The economy is far bigger than the president. Facts and figures were flying so fast and furiously in the debates that nobody could keep track because nearly all of them require the kind of careful explanation that?s impossible in a dueling sound-bite format.
The other thing that was really galling to me in the debates is the way statements were taken out of context or turned into extraordinary generalizations. Both sides did this. It?s sound-bite politics: Throw out a good phrase, catch your opponent in an unguarded moment, beat him over the head with something that you know he didn?t mean. The Lincoln-Douglas debates these are not.
Postman called this process ?amusing ourselves to death.? We?ve lost the capacity for genuine debate and serious discussion of serious issues. What we saw this year are, at best, parallel news conferences and, at worst, unhealthy side-shows.
Christians need to look beyond the political hype that the debate format encourages and look at the real issues. That means studying the records of the candidates, their proven capacity for leadership. It means looking at their voting records, their integrity, and their character. Once you do that and come to a solemn decision about who can best lead the country, vote.
For further reading and information:
Ben Wiker, ? Why You Must Vote ,? Crisis, October 2004.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Press, 1986).
BreakPoint Commentary No. 041008, ? Why Should They Vote?: Condescending for the Youth Vote .?
BreakPoint Commentary No. 031022, ? Doing Our Homework: Believing Isn?t Enough .?
Charles Colson, ? An Act of Love: The Role Christians Play in Public Life ,? BreakPoint WorldView, October 2004.
Michael Barone, ? The third debate ,? Townhall.com,
Suzanne Fields, ?Beauty in the eye of the voter,? Townhall.com, 18 October 2004.