Presidential debates: entertainment or information?

Posted: May 07, 2007 12:00 AM
Presidential debates: entertainment or information?

With the first debate of the Republican presidential candidates, the second debate of the primary season, now behind us, there's one clear loser. That's the American people.

The responsibility lies with the press corps to identify the pressing issues of the day and to make sure that those who want to be president of the United States address these issues.

The press is not doing its job here and, as a result, critical opportunities for the public at large to hear candidates weigh in on major issues are being lost.

Chris Matthews, in laying out the ground rules for this first Republican debate, said, as Brian Williams did with the Democrats, that candidates shouldn't waste time thanking the hosts. Correctly, he set a tone that time is limited and that it is important that it be used well.

Then, despite this, Matthews wasted this valuable time by asking each of the 10 GOP candidates if they would support amending the Constitution so that naturalized citizens like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, prominently seated in the audience at the debate, could run for president. Why?

Matthews later asked several candidates if they would employ Karl Rove on their White House staffs. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, correctly and professionally, made clear that this was an irrelevant, and quite stupid, question.

Aside from the war in Iraq, nothing looms more among the legitimate concerns of the American electorate than health care. But not a single question was asked to draw out the candidates' thoughts on this major issue.

We know that the two leading Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, want to effectively bring socialized medicine to our country. How do Republican candidates feel about this? How would they deal with runaway health-care costs? Are they concerned that there are many who have no health insurance?

President Bush made a provocative and creative proposal in his State of the Union message this year that would level the field between the costs of health insurance between those receiving insurance through their employer and those purchasing it on their own. Would it not have made sense to probe what these Republican candidates think about this and other possible approaches?

How about education? The hallmark legislation of the Bush administration, currently up for reauthorization, is No Child Left Behind.

Yet, not a single question on No Child Left Behind in particular or education in general was asked.

So, at the conclusion of the first debate of Republican candidates, we know that eight of 10 would not amend the Constitution to allow a naturalized citizen to become president, but we have no idea, based on this debate, about their thoughts on health care or education.

How about entitlements? There is no greater fiscal challenge confronting this country today than the insurmountable obligations facing us through Medicare and Social Security.

An article in the current edition of the Financial Analysts Journal, co-authored by economists from the University of Pennsylvania and the Cato Institute, estimates that the unmet obligations we now have as a result of Medicare and Social Security amount to $63.7 trillion. That's almost six times the nation's GDP.

According to the authors, as a result of this cost, and because of smoke and mirrors in how we do our nation's budgeting, the federal deficit is closer to $2.4 trillion rather than $200 billion. How will we pay these bills?

Not a single presidential candidate of either party is addressing this massive problem.

Isn't the press corps responsible for pushing candidates to crawl out from under their rocks and address these tough issues? It's not happening, and we are the losers.

Regarding the Republican field, I am in agreement with Gilmore, that there's not one among the 10 who I would not rather have than Clinton. But, nevertheless, I felt that the leading candidates showed why Republican voters are having a hard time getting enthusiastic.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is vague and inarticulate. I found his non-response about Roe v. Wade totally unsatisfying. Roe can be opposed simply as a constitutional issue, yet the former New York mayor is unable to even do this.

I find former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's explanation that he suddenly turned anti-abortion two years ago as a result of the cloning issue a bit hard to swallow. Somehow, the 45 million abortions that occurred from 1973 to 2005 were insufficient to move Romney, but suddenly he woke up because of cloning?

If Matthews and his crew were doing their job, they would have probed Sen. John McCain of Arizona about his wavering on the Bush tax cuts. And they certainly would have explored his courageous vote against the budget-busting Medicare prescription bill in 2003.

Information is the oxygen of quality public discourse and a meaningful political process. The press today, unfortunately, wants to be in the entertainment business rather than the information business. We're all losers as result. The American public deserves better.