Monday, August 18, 2008

Presidential debates - how they have worked, not worked and what they mean for the next American President

James Fallows, a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, has sat through all 47 of the 2007 - 2008 primary season’s debates and analyzed how they were presented, what they have showed us about the various candidates, and what can be gleaned from them about what the general election is going to be about and what kind of President Obama will be.

He focuses finally on Obama, because the Republican debates displayed very little of significance about McCain, certainly not enough to predict much about what his Presidency would be like. He starts with an analysis of the nine series of Presidential debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Bush43-Kerry, but then focuses on the recently completed primary debates. The article is a long one, but fascinating.

Apparently Obama was a much more fluid and comfortable debater back in 204 against Alan Keyes than he has demonstrated in the recent Democratic Primary, but he has clearly grown and improved from the beginning to the end. Hillary, on the contrary, has shown a massive knowledge of current issues and functioned consistently from beginning to end.

Fallows explains why the debates unfolded as they did. Candidates needed exposure - moderators needed a grab-you headline for the next day's news; also the extremely knowledgeable Tim Russert set the tone for the kinds of questions that were asked. Fallows also describes five kinds of questions that should never be asked in a political debate, and Russert used them all. They are
  1. The will you pledge tonight question, which is always about something no responsible politician could ever flat-out promise to do.
  2. The gotcha question, involving any change of policy.
  3. The loaded hypothetical question, which assumes factors that can’t be known.
  4. The raise your hand question, for reasons of intellectual vulgarity and personal rudeness; and
  5. The lightning round, in which the candidates have 30 seconds to address a point.
Fallows explains each of those with examples on Page 2 of his article.

This is a fascinating article, one I feel sure that the Obama camp is reading and taking to heart. We can hope that the media experts similarly take it to heart. As for the McCain camp? They have two choices. Find another candidate, or work the referees. McCain, even at his best, is simply not first tier material. Obama is.

But of course, the media will grade McCain on the curve, not on his demonstrated abilities. That's why the McCain camp is already pushing the line that McCain's POW experience is off-limits, even as they use it as an excuse for everything he screws up on, and that's also why any mention of McCain's age and obvious frequent periods of confusion sets the McCain camp into hysterics.

It's going to be interesting which Obama shows up for the TV debates - the rapid-fire fun-loving debater who successfully went toe-to-toe with the top-notch debater, Alan Keyes, in 2004, or the more thoughtful and restrained Constitutional Law Professor who responds with a brief review of all sides of each question before going on to answer it the way he wanted it asked.

Since the election is probably going to be decided by voter turn-out, more than likely we will see the law prof. That's less risky in the face of clear efforts by the media to trap him while they carefully avoid presenting McCain's many flaws [*]. Much of the consolidated corporate media is working hard to elect McCain.

[*]See Frank Rich's Sunday editorial entitled "The Candidate We Still Don’t Know" in which he reports all the things the media (especially TV) are covering up for McCain. Rich does not name editors at the Washington Post (Leonard Downie Jr. and Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt) or the New York Times editors who are also orchestrating part of the cover-up.

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