Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 1999/27 Kislev, 5760
Commiting dullness rather than news
THE BIG QUESTION before last Thursday's Republican
presidential forum was whether George W. Bush, making his maiden voyage as a
GOP debater, would step on his diction.
He did not. He remained mostly grammatical and even managed to cough out a
soliloquy about Tier 2 sulfur standards for gasoline -- thus proving he
could answer an obscure question nobody cared about.
Meanwhile, his competitors proved again that Republicans are different from
Democrats. They kept their attacks polite, their answers tame and their
demeanor gentlemanly. John McCain fired off a couple of stump-speech jokes
about his ill temper and got in an unexpected plug for "Weekend at
Bernie's." Steve Forbes excoriated "Washington politicians." And the rest of
the crew behaved as expected: Alan Keyes, fiery; Gary Bauer, polished; Orrin
"Dial groups" assembled by speakout.com showed McCain a winner, followed by
Forbes and Bush. (Dial groups measure people's instant reactions -- positive
and negative -- to what they're seeing and hearing.) Alan Keyes meanwhile
won an online poll conducted by votenow.com -- proving that he is the most
eloquent of the batch.
Despite all that, the event was a status-quo bit of political theater, not
likely to prepare anybody for hand-to-hand combat with Al Gore or Bill
Bradley. The key for the front-runners is that neither lost.
Still, the laggards in this campaign harbor a legitimate gripe about these
public forums -- that they shed little light or heat. They are interesting
only in flashes -- Ronald Reagan's burst of temper in Nashua, New Hampshire
20 years ago; Bob Dole demanding that George Bush "stop lying about my
record!" or Gerald Ford's premature liberation of Poland in 1976.
Alan Keyes may excite some online viewers, but he can't speak in any depth
during these forums about his misgivings with regard to global governance.
Gary Bauer can't flesh out his complaint that the Republican Party tends to
value big bucks more than the misfortunes of little people. Instead, these
guys have to be content shooting off bottle rockets and hoping to ignite an
electoral conflagration in the bargain.
Orrin Hatch, bless his heart, recommended a way to lift the level of the
discourse -- only to be greeted by laughter. He suggested 1) that all six
campaign together in New Hampshire and Iowa and duke it out in a series of
public contests on the issues and 2) they hold real debates in which they
control the content. Steve Forbes expressed his preference for
Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which each participant gets a chance to cross
examine the others.
These are great ideas, and thus certain never to happen. Television
producers would hate them because they could prove unwieldy -- and difficult
to interrupt with commercial messages. Journalists would resist any attack
on their control of the content. And many candidates would hesitate to
expose their intellectual, political or rhetorical shortcomings.
That said, consider the case for such debates. First, they are way more
interesting than what we get now. Just as duels fell out of vogue after
aristocrats decided to let their seconds do the shooting and dying,
presidential "debates" have lost their luster because politicians
increasingly have delegated the business of thinking and speaking to a
coterie of advisers and pollsters.
Candidates have developed the ugly habit of lapsing into campaign-trail
cant, hoping to fill their allotted time without blurting out something
controversial or stupid. They would rather commit dullness than news. And
Real debates would raise the stakes for all involved. Candidates would have
to know the issues well enough to question each other, and would have to
know their own views well enough to express them spontaneously -- and in
response to unexpected questions or attacks.
A Lincoln-Douglas brawl would give viewers a true sense of how candidates
react to pressure and stress. Would they go crazy? Would they demonstrate
calm? Could they use humor to defuse potential confrontations?
A recent survey by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University shows
people are switching off Campaign 2000 even before it starts. They're bored
by the extensive but shallow coverage. They're bored with the candidates.
And they hate the cattle calls.
One way to spice up life would be to jettison the town-hall forums and
ersatz press conferences and let the would-be leaders fight it out in the
ring, all by themselves. After all, isn't that supposed to be the point of
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©1999, Creators Syndicate