Posted by: vernacularsnoop | August 29, 2008

Make them debate

Debate is absolutely vital to democracy. When candidates debate, it gives large numbers of engaged voters the chance to consider their stances on the issues from all sides. Debate shows us certain things about a candidate – such as how well she performs under pressure, or how well she really knows the issues – that scripted press releases and TV ads hide. Perhaps the best thing about debate is that fresh ideas can gain a popular audience, forcing candidates to step outside the status quo and show their true level of commitment to progress.

If debate is such a great thing for democracy, why, then, is debate such a rarity in today’s political process? How can incumbents get away with refusing to debate their challengers? Of course, the reasons that politicians avoid debate are obvious: those who lead in the polls are afraid of anything that could upset the balance. We have a typical example in the 2008 presidential race. In May, when he was considered an underdog, Senator Obama declared, “If John McCain wants to meet me anywhere, anytime, to have a debate about our respective policies in Iraq, in Iran, in the Middle East or around the world, that is a conversation I am happy to have.” Come August, Obama is leading McCain in the polls, and “anywhere, anytime” seems to have been forgotten. Ralph Nader talks about Obama’s evasive maneuvers on Democracy Now!:

“McCain offered ten town meetings to Obama. Obama said no. Google wants a—let’s see, a September 18th debate in New Orleans. McCain said OK, Obama said no. A veterans’ group coalition out of Fort Hood, Texas, they wanted a debate. McCain said OK, Obama says no. Isn’t that amazing?”

Nader knows a great deal about the presidential debates, partly from first-hand experience. In 2004, he was stopped by police from even entering the debate hall as a spectator, despite the fact that he had a ticket. To paraphrase one commentator from the movie “An Unreasonable Man”, Nader was excluded from the debates in 2000 because they said he wouldn’t be a factor. Then the day after the election, they changed their minds and said that he was the deciding factor.

It was from Nader’s book “Crashing the Party” that I first learned how the Democratic and Republican parties control the presidential debates through a corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates. The established parties created the CPD in 1987 to wrest control of the debates away from the League of Women Voters, which the parties deemed insufficiently compliant with their demands. If today’s debates seem scripted and lifeless, like dull recitations of memorized lines, it’s because they are. The CPD not only stifles participation from outside the two-party system, it also meticulously supervises the moderators to make sure that everything is nice and predictable, with no surprises for the candidates or the debates’ corporate sponsors (some sponsors this year include Wal-Mart, the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the coal lobby).

This is a pathetic state of affairs and cries out for reform. First of all, Americans need to start sending the message that debate-dodgers will not get our vote. When a candidate runs away from debate, he is essentially saying, “I have no confidence in my abilities; I believe that my opponent is more competent than me and would probably do a better job if elected.” We should demand that all office-seekers engage in debates with their opponents to prove that they are qualified. Secondly, we should demand that the presidential debates be run by an independent authority like the League of Women Voters, and that all candidates who are on enough ballots to win the required number of electoral votes be included. I am confident that if Cynthia McKinney were in the presidential debates, she would blow away the corporate media’s caricatured portrayal of her and bring the Green party’s message to millions of people who weren’t even aware that they had a real choice. Of course, Bob Barr, Ralph Nader and Chuck Baldwin should be given the same opportunity.

Just one real debate could change the course of our country…

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