Monday, October 09, 2006

Could debates be even more boring? Try this

Dan Flannery of the Appleton Post Crescent is amused that all of the candidates for governor, including the one who wasn't invited, declared victory after Friday night's debate.

But then he turns serious and offers some ways to "fix" our campaigns, including:
...Don't allow any candidate to discuss another candidate's record, philosophy or statements. Don't allow any candidate to acknowledge other candidates are in the room or even in the campaign.

-- Don't allow candidates to see each other on stage, or in TV monitors. Candidates need to focus on you and me. Not each other.

-- Each candidate must limit comments to his/her agenda, and tell us what he/she would like to do in office. And stick to matters of public policy.

It would be fair game to discuss statistics, to support a candidate's policy initiatives or a call for change in whatever area. But the past is the past, and cannot be changed.
In these forums, candidates need to talk about the future, and about their philosophies.

If we face problems caused by an incumbent's decisions, criticizing those decisions is moot. Tell us how you'll fix it.

-- None of this walking-around-with-the-microphone stuff. It's not a talk show, and it's not important how comfortable a candidate is on a stage. We're not auditioning for an on-air gig. We're listening to how well our candidates can think.

Stand behind a podium or sit at a desk, and impress us with your mind...
I don't think it matters much if they sit or stand, speak or yodel. Partly, the television stations are trying to make it interesting enough to keep people watching. Friday night's format could not have been duller. But that's minor. Flannery says they shouldn't even be called debates, and under his rules they wouldn't be.

The other "fixes" are more problematic.

Campaigns are about drawing distinctions between candidates. That's how voters make up their minds. They compare the candidates and make a judgment about which one best represents their way of thinking, which one is most likely to do what they would do.

In making that judgment, what a candidate has done in the past is clearly relevant. To say the past is out of bounds is to ask voters to compare the candidates on who can make the best and the most promises, who can paint the prettiest picture.

Are voters to pretend these candidates just materialized on the scene, out of thin air? Wouldn't that be nice? No baggage. Everyone starts equal.

Those are the rules that allow a Mark Green to say he will promote stem cell research, when his record is just the opposite. When he says he'll be a tight-fisted budgeter and get the state's finances in order, is it relevant to point out that he has voted for the biggest deficits in history? Of course it is.

Flannery might argue that there are plenty of other ways for people to find out the negative information about the candidates. And there certainly are. But there is nothing more effective at keeping a candidate honest than knowing his/her opponent is standing right there, ready to point out the exaggerations or falsehoods.

To suggest that the candidates should not be able to criticize one another, or point out when their opponents are stretching the truth or contradicting the facts, is to fundamentally misunderstand how campaigns work. Voters need that information to make an informed decision. It can't all be pie in the sky; some truth-telling, even if unpleasant, is required.

By eliminating the clashes, Flannery's format also would guarantee the most boring political programming in history. And that's saying a lot.


At 7:57 AM, Blogger Bloviatius said...

The suggestions regarding altering the debate/forum structure are interesting to be sure. I certainly understand the desire to change the way it presently works (or rather doesn't work), but I feel it is the candidates themselves who must instigate this change, not the media. Think how refreshing it would be for a candidate to unlaterally declare his/her opponent to be perceptibly off-limits for harsh commentary. (It won't happen because the professional politicos - the backstage handlers - are in love with the concept of 'taking the gloves off' and duking it out mano a mano. And there is no candidate I know who is immune to the machniations of the backstage machine.)

In any event, I could not support a debate structure wherein the candidates are separated from each other in separate, secluded locales. Part of the discernment process for us as political consumers is to see how the candidates relate in interpersonal terms. You know, as the human beings we all purport to be.

Whether they like it or not, whether WE like it or not, part of the role of statesmen is to work together in a spirit of compromise and diplomacy. A true statesman can not be a disconnected technocrat blithely offering up clinical positions void of human interaction. Unfortunately, that is precisely what we too often get.

I believe it is vitally important to see how a candidate interacts with members of the opposition. It is all too easy to be pithy and biting in a room with one's self - even if there is a camera there to capture it for us. It is a bit more telling to see if compassion and human kindness eke through when faced with a spewing, vehement opponent spitting vitriol with every breath from a distance of six feet away. Does he/she handle the pressure with grace and magnamity? Does he/she cave to raw emotion and invective? Does he/she offer up disarming humor, or blush in fluster at the rant? These are all telling touchpoints that I watch for as I believe they tell a lot about a prospective statesman's future performance.

Maybe humanity is not presently at the core of many of our political decisions, but maybe - just maybe - it should be.


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