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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Debating Debating

As the number of preprimary presidential debates has risen into the low hundreds, I've been thinking about the utility of this fairly recent and television friendly institution.

The problem with the debates is this: They are stupid. And pointless. And not debates. They are joint press conferences, and uninformative ones at that. The candidates easily sidestep saying anything that means anything and instead stick to the fricking talking points that dominate current American politics. This goes for all debates involving candidates from either party or both together.

The format is such that, even when a candidate slips up and says something that might give a glimmer of what they actually think, the other candidates and the moderators are so focused on their scripts that they can't do anything to explore the implications of the slip up. For example, in the second debate between Mr Bush and Mr Kerry in the last general election, the town hall-style one, Mr Bush was asked what Supreme Court decisions he thought had been decided correctly. Well, this question fell clearly outside what he had rehearsed, and, since he knows nothing of history or law, he was left grasping for the name of a case. The one he came up with was Dred Scott.

Now, for those who have forgotten their junior high school history class, Dred Scott v. Sandford was an important Supreme Court decision that occurred just before the Civil War. Dred Scott was a slave who sued to obtain his freedom based on tenures spent living in free states. The Supreme Court found that black people had no rights to citizenship according to the Constitution and found that Scott was not a man with standing to sue, but a piece of property without it.

This is the decision that Mr Bush thought was well-decided.

The amazing thing to me was that no one called him on it. Kerry, instead of jumping on that like a hamster on a pellet, ignored it. Bob Schieffer ignored it. The papers ignored. Everyone ignored it. Here he was, saying, by extension, that he thought slavery was a good thing and no one said anything. How could they? It wasn't in the script.

What I would rather see is a series of discussions. Match up candidates in a round robin of discussions. Make them sit across a table from one another and make them say things. Instead of asking questions, which can be phrased in prejudicial and misleading ways, offer topics. Iraq. Healthcare. The budget. Trade policy. Cuba. Whatever. Make 'em slug it out.

(Just for the record, true debates do not feature questions being asked of individuals. They start with resolutions, such as "Resolved: The national speed limit should be lowered to 55," not "What would you think of the death penalty if your wife was brutally raped and murdered?" These things aren't really debates.)

In order to have a discussion, you have to have an exchange of ideas. One person has to listen to the other. Since you can never tell what direction a conversation is going to go in, the answers can't be prepared in advance and memorized. And when the other person says that he thinks that Dred Scott was a good decision, you can take his measure, look him in the eye, and say, "Do you really?"

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