Fixing the Debate Process in America
Newt Gingrich is finally moving up in the polls for the GOP nomination. It's interesting to note that, during a National Press Club appearance, the former House speaker spoke critically about the process that ultimately chooses a candidate:
We've invented a system where we've replaced big city machine bosses with consultant bosses. ... The job of the candidate is to raise the money to hire the consultants to do the focus groups to figure out the 30-second answers to be memorized by the candidates. ... Then you combine the stultifying, exhausting, shrinking process with the way these auditions have occurred. ... Candidates are held to a rigidity standard, while their answers are held to a 30-second sound bite standard that is frankly absurd. "What's your answer on Iraq in 30 seconds? What's your answer on health care in 30 seconds?"
Gingrich was talking about the ludicrous and demeaning process by which we select the person who we hope will lead us into the future. The question is, if we make a circus out of the process, and the candidates submit like trained seals, how can we respect their leadership abilities? If the best they can do is follow the lead of paid consultants, how in the world can they be qualified to lead America? Perhaps we should elect their consultants.
Gingrich believes that the solution is for the nominees of each party to engage in Lincoln-Douglas style debates, such as the one he recently had with Herman Cain in Houston, Texas. These debates would occur about once a week and would last for ninety minutes each, providing the voters with an opportunity to get an in-depth look at the candidates and their individual strengths and weaknesses.
The point he's making is that the public should be able to view the candidates in a setting less formal than the stopwatch technique being used by various media agencies, peppered with biased questions that tend to elicit formulaic answers. By contrast, if each debater asks questions of the other, allowing enough time for a full response that includes solutions, the audience gets to hear the quality of the questions as well as the depth of the answers from each candidate.
This method is likely to be more exciting for the viewers because, without the moderators there to cut the debaters off in the middle of sentences, we would get some idea of how forceful each candidate could be in getting his points across. Would he become belligerent, obnoxious, condescending?
If you've ever participated in a debate, you'll remember how stressful they can be and how often you must struggle to keep your emotions in control. That's why such formats are an invaluable tool that allows the public to get a look into the personality and the temperament of the people who will be representing them for the next four years. The potential insight here cannot be equitably compared to a slick television commercial that airbrushes the candidates before selling them to a gullible audience with a long record of suspending disbelief.
Hence, Mr. Gingrich was saying what at least a few Americans are probably thinking: that the current electoral system has become overly dependent on money and the ability of highly paid consultants to groom candidates and market them to the voters like breakfast cereal. The Founding Fathers did not invent this process for the enrichment of consultants or for the cynical maneuvering of those who seek power. They invented this process to enable the American people to determine whom they would lend power to. And the process should start with this question: what is the kind of campaign the American people need in order to have the kind of country they deserve? If a candidate's personal fortune and/or the contributions from the wealthiest partisans continue to be the deciding factor, then democracy will be defeated, and plutocracy will rule.
Like Rush Limbaugh in his first best-seller, Mr. Gingrich was talking about the way things ought to be. Unfortunately, politics is not a level playing field, and money has always been a candidate's strongest opponent. But a look at the current GOP race suggests that things may be changing. Herman Cain, notwithstanding his recent bad publicity, rose to the top of the polls by the force of his personality and a record of business success. Newt Gingrich hasn't been able to raise much money, but his intellect and oratorical skills have been worth a fortune. In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform that said, "It's time for a change." Next year, if leadership, experience, and fiscal conservatism can outweigh cash, we will truly have a change in this country.