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Posted by on Apr 18, 2008 in Politics | 0 comments

Presidential Debates: Can’t We Do Better?

Scorn has been heaped on ABC News anchors Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for their work on this week’s debate between Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama, his supporters, and some pundits have been critical of the two for using more than half of the debate to pose what they regard as “gotcha” questions, rather than ones dealing with substantive issues.

Stephanopoulos defended the approach taken by he and Gibson, saying, “We wanted to focus at first on the issues that were not focused on during the last debates.”

The “last debates” includes a body of twenty, count ’em twenty, previous encounters involving the two senators!

By this time, we’ve probably all heard what the two senators have to say about the biggest issues of the campaign–from Iraq to the economy, health care to special interests’ influence on public policy.

In fairness to Gibson and Stephanopoulos then, a different approach was warranted. They’re news people and it’s legitimate for them to look for the candidates to “make news” by being forced to answer different questions.

And, it probably would have been unnatural to expect that in the wake of some of the comments and gaffes perpetrated by the candidates and their respective campaigns that there wouldn’t have been some questions about their alleged elitism (Obama) or distance from the truth (Clinton).

But, it seems to me that Gibson and Stephanopoulos also missed a golden opportunity. “Senators, we’ve heard where you stand on some of the marquee issues,” they might have said, “but how about if we spend some time on other issues the lay beneath the surface?”

For example, time might have profitably been spent on discussing the interrelated issues of suburban sprawl, white flight, energy costs and alternative energy development, and how the US can be a leader of Third Wave economic pursuits while still maintaining its agricultural and industrial bases. Or, given the candidates’ critiques of current policy in Iraq, they might have been asked about the disintegration of realpolitik as a guiding principle for foreign policy in both parties and whether today the only alternatives are Wilsonian interventionism and isolationism.

Prior to one recent debate, I suggested 23 questions that might be posed to the candidates. Most of the topics I thought worthy of exploration were ignored.

There are too many debates and presidential campaigns are way too long. Those two facts no doubt play their part in yielding insubstantial “debates.”

But if the two ABC anchors were serious about focusing on issues not focused on in previous debate encounters, they could have done a lot better job than they did this week.

[This has also been posted at my personal blog.]

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