Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More Debates, Please

by Libby Sternberg

The first votes in the 2012 presidential race were finally cast last night at the Iowa caucuses. And, to no one's shock, Barack Obama won. Well, in the Democratic primary. In the Republican one, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are at the top of the pack, followed by Ron Paul.

The fact that these were the first votes cast might come as a surprise to some folks only paying attention tangentially because, for months now, media pundits have been gabbing about what candidate is ahead--in public opinion polls, that is, not in actual, real voters' votes.

Journalists love to focus on the "horse race" aspect of an election cycle -- who's ahead and why -- rather than on the details of a candidate's policy positions or his or her background. (Well, at least when it's a Democrat-- in that case, background investigation gets scant and/or glowing attention; if it's a Republican, every rug is lifted to see what dirt hides there.)

And what has this process taught us?  Well, it's taught me that public debates are a good thing and possibly even the antidote to the endless blathering and "gotcha" interviews of traditional media. Numerous public debates might even be -- are you ready? -- the best way to keep campaign expenses reasonable, meaning that less-well-funded candidates have a chance against mega-funded ones. Let's examine the recent GOP experiences for evidence:

When the primary campaigns began, the candidate field settled on Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and, oh, yeah, Jon Huntsman.

Mitt Romney, for many reasons, led the field in public opinion polls, but voters were clearly not settled on him and looking for an alternative. Into that role stepped a succession of candidates, and with each one's surge, the traditional media herd thundered in their direction with the usual breathless conjectures about the latest rising star. 

Texas Governor Rick Perry was one of those Mitt-alternatives. Although most liberal media surely didn't care much for Perry's policy approach, his rise to prominence in the electoral field was fueled, at least in part, by some of the media's oohing and aahing over his entry into the field, he with his job-creating record in Texas and his conservative bona fides.

And then....well, then the debates happened. And not only was Gov. Perry an extremely poor debater, some of his previous positions were revealed, by other candidates and by the debate moderators, as not being that conservative, or even that good, at all.

Polls that had shown him on top during the breathless media rush, afterwards showed a precipitous drop.

Media "gatekeepers" were trumped by the voters' ability to view the candidate himself.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich's story is a bit different, but it still showed the influence of the debates. Prior to Gov. Perry's decline, Mr. Gingrich's narrative in the media was one of the mean-spirited, Tiffany-client hypocrite who didn't have a chance.

Then, in the debates, he really began to shine, with intelligent, information-packed answers to questions and a refusal to beat up on his fellow candidates, focusing his criticism on the president's policies.

Once again, polls shifted. The media gatekeepers no longer owned the narrative, controlled the story. Voters saw for themselves who this man was, and they liked what they saw of his ideas. (That changed, of course, as Mr. Gingrich inadequately responded to criticisms from fellow candidates.)

I have heard complaints about the number of debates that have taken place, but they've served a great purpose -- they've allowed voters to make their own assessments of the candidates, rather than having the traditional media present assessments to them.

When voters can see for themselves and gather their own information on the candidates, less money is needed to counter false impressions, and candidates with less money still have a chance.

So, I say, "more debates, please," especially after the primaries are over and it's one Republican against the incumbent. Instead of the traditional two or three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate, let's have a schedule packed with them. Let the candidates debate often. Let them debate everywhere--on television, on the internet, on radio.

As long as the moderators' questions are intelligent and relevant (here are some ideas), debates help candidates get past the traditional media gatekeepers and go directly to the public with their ideas.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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