Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The debate (again)

I was going to leave it alone, really I was, but then I read Ross Douthat's defense of last week's debate in The Atlantic. His essential point, while far better expressed than David Brooks was able to do, is that the questions of the first 52 minutes "matter because they're personal," because they reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of people to whom we are granting extraordinary power. Douthat believes that specific policy proposals may not matter so much in the long or even medium term (presumably because situations change, new priorities arise), but that trivial-seeming items such as Bush's inability to remember the names of world leaders in 2000 actually end up disclosing important truths about the candidate's ability and direction.

There are essentially two objections to this line of reasoning, I think. First, and it's something that has been missed by a lot of defenders of Charlie and George, most rational people haven't objected to any specific question that was asked (I don't profess to have read every one of the thousands of comments that were posted at ABC, but I saw a good sampling). The problem most of us had was that they spent 52 minutes on things that were not very important. If the debate had been 8 hours long (and, heavens, I'm not advocating that), maybe it's true that we could have wandered through the thicket of who-knew-who-when for close to an hour. But, at a time of profound national challenges, it was irresponsible to spend close to half the time on such things.

Douthat's main point is better reasoned, but I still think it comes up short. The problem is that it is pretty much impossible to figure out which moments have symbolic resonance. It's easy to look back now and claim that Bush's name problem implied that he would be indifferent to the opinions of others, or that his speech at Bob Jones University implied that he would be all too beholden to the Christian right, but that's picking out a couple of events. These campaigns are so long that anyone could probably find events to support whatever interpretation is desired.

I picked Douthat's Bush examples, but he does find a couple from the other side of the aisle, but I don't think that fare any better. He cites Hillary's name changes as evidence of her "echt-feminist principle and political opportunism." I might agree with that now, but, at the time, it could have been seen (and was) as a demonstration of her responsiveness to social norms; had subsequent events been different, the deconstruction would be too.

My point is that, unless this reading leads us to an unequivocal conclusion, we can only get hints from these kinds of actions, and this can be immensely misleading. I don't know how close Obama is to Bill Ayres; my sense of the importance of this is colored by my previous feeling toward Barack, and he's not likely to say anything which will change that (oh, if he had said he felt that Ayres' actions were great and wonderful, I might blink, but is that going to happen, and should ABC be circling around and hoping so?).

I said much the same thing in my review of Jacob Weisberg's book (also cited by Douthat). Weisberg's thesis that Bush's actions can be explained in terms of his family dynamic is fascinating, likely true, but, unless it gives us a way to anticipate what he will do, it has little current (but great historic) value. Whether a candidate wears a flag pin or not falls into the same category, it implies anything you want to believe, and, thus, nothing.
An additional note: I wouldn't have been satisfied even if the ABC boys had asked two hours of questions of substance, because they would still have been framed and constrained in the usual ways. I would love to see the moderators ask larger questions, questions that get at the heart of the philosophy of the candidates. It would be far more potentially useful to hear the answers to questions such as, "What will be your Administration's philosophy about Europe?," or, "What do we tell our children when they ask what career they can go into?" I'm sure any thinking person can come up with quite a few more, and they would have a chance to reveal something about the candidates that doesn't come verbatim from the stump speech.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Good points, especially that the moderators should ask "questions that get at the heart of the philosophy of the candidates." Those kinds of questions would make the candidates reveal what they truly know, think, believe, and plan to do.

In addition, if the "personal" questions asked by the ABC moderators were so great, why were they not directed equally between Clinton and Obama? Maybe "why don't you wear a American flag lapel pin" could have gone to Clinton.

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