Saturday, April 19, 2008

Would a Hoosier debate be more substantive than the others? Not likely

I can never figure out in my mind whether our campaign seasons have too many debates, or too few.

The reality is that we have too many events that masquerade as debates. In reality, the events themselves are worthless – except as a forum for pressuring a politico to say something stupid that can be played over and over and over on television newscasts across the nation.

THE NUMBER OF political debates this year that actually had substantive formats or were designed to draw out worthwhile information from the candidates? Zero.

Too many of the campaign debates I have covered throughout the years as a reporter existed merely so that some group could claim it had enough influence to sponsor one of the official debates. None of this year’s roughly 20 Democratic presidential debates appear to be any different.

Some debates are sponsored by government watchdog groups (like the League of Women Voters) that want to say they have enough clout to control a political event.

Others are driven by news media organizations whose purpose in sponsoring the event is to turn the debate into a personal interview session with their star news anchor or other broadcast talent – thereby promoting the television station’s image.

THAT’S THE BEST way to look at the most recent debate held in Philadelphia – the one where Barack Obama claims he was ganged up on by George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson.

ABC wanted to show off their star news anchor and Sunday morning show host so they could claim in the future that they had the expert resources working to put together their newscasts.

In a sense, Stephanopoulos was trying to “make his bones” journalistically when he brought up matters such as Obama’s acquaintanceship with former anti-Vietnam War radical Bill Ayers and permitted an audience member to treat the concept of U.S. flag lapel pins as though they were a legitimate issue.

In that sense, the debate was a success. ABC got attention for its news division people, the ratings were good and there’s a very good chance that the Philadelphia debate will be the only one that people remember years from now (although the Austin, Texas debate where Hillary Clinton put her foot in her mouth several times may also go unforgotten).

IT ALSO MEANS that Barack Obama is not being paranoid when he says the debate was something of an ambush, and that it took roughly 45 minutes of the two-hour time allotted for the event before any issue of substance was discussed, although Stephanopoulos has said he was merely trying to put Obama “on the record” on several ongoing “issues.”

The problem with modern-day campaign debates is that they are “made for TV” events. They are all designed to fit within the confines of one hour (sometimes two). But a debate is supposed to be a spontaneous, but structured, event where candidates provide meaningful responses to serious questions.

Instead, television productions masquerading as debates wind up cutting off candidates before they can really answer a question. And a conniving candidate knows how to fill up the bulk of their allotted time with meaningless pap or a blistering attack on their opponent, knowing they can run the clock down so as to evade having to provide a meaningful answer to whatever the question was.

They differ significantly from the political debates of old, which could run on for hours and were designed to allow for significant back-and-forth between the candidates as they responded to each others questions and answers.

I RECALL A 1998 debate during the Illinois gubernatorial race that was held in Charleston, Ill. It differed from other debates that year (and from other debates typically held for statewide campaigns) in that the sponsors were determined to host an event that followed the format of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856.

It was interesting, from a government geek’s perspective, as the level to which a candidate could respond to a question and elaborate was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before.

But it was long – more than three hours. Individual questions, with all the back and forth permitted, could take up to a half hour to complete.

With the modern-day time constraints of blocking out an hour or so for a debate, television viewers would get to hear opening statements, one question, and perhaps a closing statement – if the candidates could keep their comments concise.

I WOULD THINK any television producer who tried to propose putting such an event on the air would promptly lose their job (just think how difficult it would be to break away from the back and forth of an answer in order to air commercials).

In all honesty, I’m not sure what to think of the prospect of yet another debate.

Indiana officials want to have one somewhere in their state prior to the May 6 primary, and Clinton on Friday agreed to participate in the event tentatively scheduled for Thursday (just two days after the Pennsylvania primary).

But Obama has yet to agree to participate, and Indiana officials admit they are more than willing to consider other dates – provided that the event occurs prior to the Hoosier primary.

COULD IT TAKE a boost of Hoosier organization to put together a debate-type event that puts aside any desire to promote Indiana and focuses on getting information from the candidates?

Quit dreaming.

Already, Rudy Clay, the mayor of Gary, Ind., is saying he wants the Indiana debate to be held in his city – because he wants the national focus for one night on Gary for something other than a murder or steel mill layoffs.

There’s also the fact that any Indiana debate would be broadcast, by PBS affiliates and CNN. Ultimately, this means a Hoosier debate would be merely the John King show (just like the Austin, Texas debate), allowing CNN’s chief national correspondent to show off, perhaps with a little help from Gwen Ifill or Jim Lehrer of PBS.

SO WHILE I wouldn’t mind if the next presidential debate were to be held so close to Chicago (I suspect Indianapolis, the state capital, has a better shot at hosting the event), a part of me dreads the coming of yet another televised debate.

My mind is cluttered with enough political trivia from this campaign season to last me a lifetime. I’m afraid if I pick up another tidbit, it will knock something important out of my mind.

It would be a shame if I forgot my laptop computer passwords or personal telephone numbers just because someone else had to pump into my head some detail about Obama’s childhood life in Indonesia meant to inspire the nativists of this country to cast ballots in the Nov. 4 general elections for John McCain.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Will Barack Obama come to the land of Hoosiers to debate Hillary Clinton yet again? We’ll have ( to wait and see.

Gary, Ind., hasn’t had upbeat national attention since the Miss USA pageant was held there in 2001. Hence, city officials ( want the Indiana portion of the Chicago area to host an Indiana presidential debate.

Once both major parties have presidential nominees, the Commission on Presidential Debates ( will be responsible for coordinating the events that pretend to be worthwhile debates.

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