Here’s how the process played out for candidate Barack Obama recently. Wolf Blitzer asked whether illegal aliens should be able to get drivers licenses. “When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention,” Obama answers. The crowd cheers, but he’s not finished.
“And -- but I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver’s licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive.” The crowd laughs, although it’s not clear this was a joke. “They’re here to work. And so instead of being distracting by what has now become a wedge issue, let’s focus on actually solving the problem that this administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it.”
And Wolf moves on to the next candidate. But -- what’s Obama’s position? As they used to say in the Tootsie Pop commercials, “The world may never know.”
And the problem isn’t confined to the Democratic side, or even to the primary process. The Gore-Bush debates in 2000 and Kerry-Bush debates in 2004 were just as plastic, right down to the final moments when candidate Bush would deliver a memorized two-minute speech directly into the camera.
Things have gotten so bad that even the ultimate political insider, Washington Post columnist David Broder, is miffed. “I suspect these candidates are better than they have looked,” he mused recently. “I know the voters deserve better. Can’t these debates be rescued?”
Well, only if they’re more focused and less scripted.
Here’s a possible prescription: Take the top four candidates in each party, and give them each 20 minutes to explain their positions on as many issues as they wish. That would force them to go beyond saying “Bush has failed” and instead give real policy positions. The debate’s host would then have 10 minutes to follow-up.
Down the road, when there are fewer candidates, we could also allow them to question each other. And that’s certainly what should happen next fall, when it’s one Democrat against one Republican for all the marbles.
The key is to force candidates to go beyond the easy soundbite and instead explain the complex policy. Until that happens, our nominating process will be little more than so much hot air.