What Presidential Debates?
by Jerome F. Winzig
All but lost in the current spat between Al Gore and George Bush about the number and format of this year's presidential debates is the fact that there really won't be any debates at all. Not in the true sense. A debate, says the dictionary, is a discussion or argument between those who have opposing views. But the format of the so-called "presidential debates" has evolved to the point that what we really have is a series of glorified joint press conferences. They are dominated by news media types who pose all the questions and control the substance of the discussion.
Such "debates" are a far cry from the famous Lincoln-Douglas election debates of 1858. That election pitted Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas against Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln. There were seven debates, held between August 21 and October 15. Each was three hours long. Questions were not defined by the news media, but by the candidates themselves, who argued back and forth in extended discussion on substantive issues, especially the extension of slavery into the territories.
These debates helped to elevate the issue of slavery, and the words of Lincoln and Douglas in those debates are still published today. Although Lincoln lost the senatorial election, the debates transformed Lincoln from a little-known member of the newly-formed Republican Party into a national figure. In 1860, he became the Republican nominee for president of the United States, running against the same Senator Douglas. This time, he soundly defeated him in the popular vote.
In this year's election the nation also faces substantive issues. They ought to be discussed forthrightly in face-to-face discussions by the two leading candidates for president. The candidates should define the issues, not news reporters. The candidates should pose the questions, not media stars. The candidates should demand answers from each other, not self-appointed "bi-partisan" arbitrators.
Suppose the candidates challenged each other on the issue of drug costs for senior citizens. They might ask each other some interesting questions: Why are seniors being selected to receive special benefits? Why are the costs high for some? Is it price gouging on the part of drug companies? Is a free market providing leading-edge remedies for complicated problems? Can drug costs be lowered by government edict? How much should government subsidize drug costs? Do lengthy FDA approval processes and liability insurance raise drug costs?
The issue of education might prompt the candidates to ask other interesting questions: What is the federal government's proper role in education? Will more money solve our education problems? Why are vouchers such a bad idea? Will federal money for school buildings reward school districts that have allowed their buildings to deteriorate? Do national standards make sense? Is the nine-month school year an anachronism?
Social security might prompt some challenging questions: Where is the money in the Social Security Trust Fund invested? How can the federal government "save" social security? Why is privatization of part of social security such a bad idea? How will social security benefits be paid in 2015? In 2030? In 2045?
Foreign affairs might lead to an entirely new set of questions: What is the United States' rightful role in the post-Cold War world? How should we deal with problems in Kosovo, Rwanda, Burma, Taiwan, Iraq, Congo, and Indonesia? Can we solve domestic drug problems by forcing other countries to stop producing drugs? Should we build and deploy a missile defense system?
Still other issues pose difficult trade-offs in terms of cost and practicality: forest management policies, drug trafficking, tax policies, immigration policies, free trade, hate crimes, and tort reform. What is the appropriate role of government in these issues? Should the decisions be made on the federal, state, or local level?
We cannot afford to keep diluting the serious discussion of such issues by filtering them through the news media. Many pundits lament the public's alleged lack of interest in politics. But there are many successful television and radio programs that feature vigorous direct discussion between those who hold opposing points of view. A no-holes-barred discussion by the presidential candidates might well provoke intense national interest, just as it did in 1858.
Let the real debates begin!