Debating Debates

Posted: Nov 22, 2007 12:01 AM
Debating Debates

Global warming seems to have let the media down. Hurricane season is almost over, and despite the predictions of all the experts back in 2005, we’ve seen a distinct lack of storms for reporters to stand out in.

Luckily, though, there have been plenty of windstorms out in Iowa as the 2008 presidential race rolls on.

Hillary Clinton touched off one tempest recently, when college student Muriel Gallo-Chasanoff told CNN that the Clinton campaign had scripted her question at a town hall meeting. She was told to ask the senator, “As a young person, I’m worried about the long-term effects of global warming. How does your plan combat climate change?”

It’s tempting to say that Mrs. Clinton aims to “cool the rhetoric” by deciding what questions she’s asked, but of course the senator’s staff said she didn’t know anything about this. “This is not acceptable campaign process moving forward,” Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said. “We’ve taken steps to ensure that it never happens again.”

But the problem here isn’t that one town hall meeting was scripted; it’s that the entire primary process is. These meetings don’t give voters a real chance to question candidates, and the televised “debates” are even worse. It’s possible to watch a two-hour exchange and come away less informed than when you started watching.

Here’s a handy guide to use the next time you’re watching a Democratic debate. The host will ask a question. Maybe it’s about Iraq. Or the budget. Or climate change. Frankly, the topic doesn’t matter. No matter what the question is, the response is prescripted.

First, the candidate will complement the questioner. “That’s an important question for our nation, and I’m glad you asked it.” Then throw in a gratuitous mention of a key Democratic interest group. “And I’d like to thank [public sector unions, teachers, whomever] for their critical leadership on this issue.” Over the ensuing applause, the candidate will yell, “America needs [blank]!” Louder cheering will follow.

Next, it’s time to denounce George W. Bush as a complete failure on this, and all other, issues. “George W. Bush has failed to lead, and I will.” Finally, he/she’ll say it’s time for “leadership and real change” on this issue, and claim to be the only candidate who can deliver that change. At this point, the candidate’s two minutes are up, and the host moves on to the next question. It’s all heat and no light.

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.