Saturday, September 27, 2008

There They Go Again

I tried to watch the debate between Obama and McCain as if I had not already taken advantage of early voting. Would I be swayed if I were still an undecided voter? Not much. Despite the scheduled focus on foreign policy, the economy was the genuine elephant in the room. McCain and Obama equally evaded the question from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, “What will you be forced to eliminate from your plans for the country as a result of the financial crisis?” Otherwise, there was a lot of chanting my dog’s bigger than your dog. Pat Buchannan, veteran of Republican politics, says McCain won the debate on points, round by round, but Obama probably took the decision, because voters could imagine him as President. Indeed, the Obama campaign strategy to show him as calm and steady contrasted favorably with McCain’s irascible demeanor.

The next scheduled debate is between the Vice Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS. The remaining Presidential Debates are scheduled for Oct. 7 in Nashville and Oct. 15 at Hofstra University, moderated respectively by senior television newsmen Tom Brokaw of NBC and Bob Shieffer of CBS. ABC representation is notably absent, perhaps in response to the widely criticized Democratic primary debate co-hosted by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

The first and most famous Presidential Debates took place in 1858, two years before the Presidential election. Upstart Illinois legislator Abraham Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Stephen A Douglas, who advocated that each state should decide for itself if it wanted slavery to be legal. Lincoln believed that the country could not endure “half slave and half free.” Lincoln lost the Senate election, but this was not the end of the discussion. Lincoln and Douglas were the opposing candidates for President of the United States in 1860. You can look up the rest. How it turned out is a long and interesting story, hard to forget.

A hundred years later, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon agreed to debate. Radio and television carried their 1960 debates live, and people who heard the debates on the radio generally said Nixon won. The television audience saw something different. Kennedy was handsome and poised. Nixon sweated, and his eyes shifted one way and then another. Kennedy cornered Nixon into taking the trigger-happy position that the United States should go to war to defend two tiny, unfamiliar islands, Quimoi and Matsu, off the coast of China. Nixon licked his wounds for eight years before he was elected President but never debated again.

The nonpartisan civic organization the League of Women Voters sponsored the Presidential Debates in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but withdrew in 1988 “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.” The Commission on Presidential Debates was formed at that time, composed of representatives of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

Copyright 2008 by William C. Cotter


Anonymous said...

You mean you're going to give me all the facts and let ME decide whether the debates are a fraud on the public, or not??! You lead me to an inescapable conclusion, Bill.
Jonny Hibbert

Paw Paw Bill said...

Just like Fox News.

Tina said...

I enjoy hearing debates. In the McCain-Obama debate neither candidate could truthfully predict the future of the national budget and what it will allow him to do.
That's why they couldn't say which parts of their proposed "changes" might be cut. Body language, self-presentation, and general demeanor are important in debates. You can learn a lot about a candidate just from those elements. It has been remarked upon that McCain did not ever look at Obama while disagreeing with him or making a disparaging statement. That in itself says something. If he doesn't want to look Obama in the eye, how is he going to look Putin in the eye? (I will skip making the predictable joke here.) And, no, I don't think the debates are a fraud. They may have their limitations but they do give Americans a chance to watch future leaders express themselves in what surely must be a stressful situation. The other day I heard Mitt Romney fielding questions from an interviewer on TV. The first thing that came to my mind was that the McCain campaign would have been better off with a McCain-Romney ticket than a McCain-Palin ticket. I may not agree with what he says, but Romney is a good speaker and would be able to hold his own with Joe Biden in a vice-presidential debate.

Professor Staff said...

I think the League of Women Voters had it right. I found the debate shallow on both sides - given any question, both seemed to be thinking "what factoid in the back of my head about something the other person said can I use to discredit this question." High school debate teams offer much more substance than the current format.

Obama definitely seemed more presidential and weathered criticism a lot better.

- Rob (in DC this weekend)


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