Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The rich grist of presidential debates

As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare for tonight's debate in Philadelphia - their 12th or 13th, depending on your criteria - the usual complaints are being raised that these forums are too numerous, too wasteful of the candidates' precious time, and way too boring for the average American voter.

I'll stipulate that these candidates are starting to resemble the large gaggle of prison escapees in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, seemingly doomed to wander the land in collective misery because they are joined at the ankles by the same length of chain. Fearing that they will lose face if they offend debate sponsors, these candidates (the Republicans as well) have been rocketing hither and yon for six months already, tethered to each other, to their well-rehearsed talking points, and to their well-honed rebuttals.

I'll also stipulate that the viewing audiences are relatively miniscule: perhaps a couple million, which is roughly 10 percent of the viewership for a crucial postseason baseball game. I'll also stipulate that chaos reigns, because every TV operation from CNN to Univision, from PBS to Logo (the gay network), wants to host a debate and hence boost their profile; and every special-interest group from the AFL-CIO to the AARP, from the NAACP to the CBC wants the candidates to run the gauntlet.

As one veteran Democratic strategist, Tom Pazzi, groused to me four years ago - when the same pattern was evident, during the runup to the '04 primaries - "You just show up, and all you can do is stay on message or be evasive, no matter what the question is...To some extent, we're just doomed to do this."

And yet, in the spirit of contrarian thought, I'll suggest here that a crowded debate calendar is a good thing. Debates help the top candidates hone their rhetorical skills under pressure, and they provide the underdogs with free exposure. The viewing audiences may be small, but that's the wrong way to measure the impact of these events. The key exchanges in these debates, and the behavior of certain candidates while under questioning, have driven much of the subsequent media discussion of the '08 campaign, and have resonated in the political community for days or weeks afterward.

The debates have already supplied us this kind of grist (and this is only a tiny random sampling): Hillary Clinton's refusal to be pinned down on how she'd reform Social Security ans whethey she'd raise payroll taxes to do so; her stonewalling on the issue of whether the names of Bill Clinton's library donors should be made public; Joe Biden's insistence that Hillary is too polarizing to govern effectively; John McCain’s dismissal of Mitt Romney as a flip-flopping opportunist; Rudy Giuliani’s fumbling attempts to tiptoe away from his past record as an abortion rights defender; the GOP candidate competition to see who’s most macho on Iran; Barack Obama’s penchant for platitudes, and his persistent reluctance to duke it out with his chief rival.

Speaking of which...The latter already is deemed to be the big story in advance of tonight’s debate. Obama truly has a dilemma: he wants to travel the high road as the epitome of a new politics of civil discourse, but there is no way he can win the Democratic nomination unless he descends into the arena with Hillary. He signaled the other day that he thinks maybe he will do so, telling The New York Times that he plans to confront Hillary more forcefully. Yet I viewed that story as a fresh sign of his reluctance. If you’re really going to slug it out with the frontrunner, you simply do it; you don’t launch a trial balloon in the Times, vowing to do it.

The truth is, Obama doesn't seem to feel comfortable confronting Hillary on camera. The guy by instinct is not a street fighter - Chris Matthews last night called him "a National Public Radio liberal," and he didn't intend that as a compliment - yet the simple fact is that, if he ultimately wants the power, he'll have to fight for it. And that will require him to take on a battle-tested woman who has been in the arena since 1992. Worse yet, he'll have to fight with enough deftness to attract new followers, rather than alienate those he already has.

In a way this is a character test for Obama - and we can thank these debates for providing him the opportunity. There will always be complaints about these forums, as evidenced by this news story: "Political specialists continue discussing how many debates are too many debates...Some organizers fear that voters' interest is strained (and that) the candidates may be a little jaded..."

That's from The New York Times - on January 8, 1988.