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It's Debate Time in America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
We didn't used to have long seasons of debate by earnest people wanting to show us why they should be president. But then we didn't have Twitter, estimated debt in the trillions of dollars or -- to the degree we have it now -- angst over the survival of our liberties.

This means we should get used to a lot of debates. And further, that these puppet shows with cute questions ("Leno or Letterman?") and choreographed camaraderie bear some direct relationship to liberty's prospects in the new century.

You can no longer, alas, ignore people on television. The thing you can't really ignore is what these people want to do for you, because they are vying for the power to do it.

The New Hampshire debate among seven Republican presidential candidates was no landmark of popular entertainment or political science, but it did put the White House's resident magician on notice. His well-known conjuring trick of building, then smashing, Slurpee-drinking Republican straw men and asking us to be grateful, is past its heyday. Barack Obama can expect hard questions henceforth; he should prepare to deliver hard answers or face the consequences.

Nor do the media -- whose doubts, if any, concerning Obama rarely spill into coverage of his administration -- enjoy the power to ignore such questions as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann (etc., etc.) bring to bear.

The notion of accountability for the employment of power techniques is baked into the American concept of government. What you do, you answer for -- assuming you're called on to answer. This is where the candidates come in. "John," says Mitt Romney, addressing the moderator, "any one of the people on this stage would be a better president than President Obama."

Not so, Mr. Obama? Tell us why. Tell us specifically why you're better than the lot of these. Then let's hear the comebacks. The beauty of free speech is beautifully on display in these encounters, and it's about time.

The existence of free speech rights by no means guarantees their intelligent exercise. A catastrophic fault of the Republican campaign in 2008 was that of failing to pull away the cloak of mystery in which Barack Obama wrapped himself. Who ever asked what he meant by "hope"? Not the media. Not John McCain. What was the "change" he wanted? "Change" to what? From what? The Wizard of Ooze held the curtain tight, lest he be surprised in mid-platitude. We let him get away with it. If many had they seen what was going on, they might still have applauded, such was their exhaustion with the Bush administration. The mostly unexamined premises of the Obama administration led in any case to Obamacare, then to the flattening of economic growth and the burgeoning of regulation. Also to the emergence of a foreign policy without, apparently, a central premise.

The Republicans are a long way from settling on a presidential ticket; still, their little get-together at Saint Anselm College puts in mind some exciting possibilities, chiefly -- for the present -- that of obliging the president of the United States to explain himself. And if he still won't? That's up to the voters.

The name Saint Anselm, I am bound to mention, resonates in another way. Anselm was a medieval (that is to say, pre-Reformation) archbishop of Canterbury: a philosopher best known for his philosophical approach to proving the existence of God. I have always found the good old saint's approach a bit of a brain-twister. Never mind. In the improbable midst of a presidential campaign, Anselm's name puts the candidates of either and all parties in their place.

The sovereign urgency we now ascribe to politics and political choices arises from the delusion that we're in charge of everything; that nothing -- not norms, not truths, not the designs of God -- constrains the human vision that we're forever monkeying with and trying out on the basis of head-counts.

The great debate in human affairs doesn't by all rights concern who should be president. It concerns how humans ought to live regardless of who becomes president.

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