Debates: Being Careless Of What They Wished For

Could the so-called presidential debates get any worse? And whatever happened to the days when the League of Women Voters sponsored them? Well, 

Control of the presidential debates has been a ground of struggle for more than two decades. The role was filled by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) civic organization in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In 1987, the LWV withdrew from debate sponsorship, in protest of the major party candidates attempting to dictate nearly every aspect of how the debates were conducted. On October 2, 1988, the LWV’s 14 trustees voted unanimously to pull out of the debates, and on October 3 they issued a dramatic press release:

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates … because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

The two major political parties had their own loyalists ready to take over the debates and did so in 1988 under the name of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The two parties presented the 1988 debates and have done so every election cycle since. The commission has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties.

So the parties wanted to turn the debates into parallel dog and pony shows in 1988. And so they have been, until this year, when they’ve devolved into something more like snake and lizard shows.

Last week’s performance by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is a case in point. It appears he wanted to meld debate with the Jerry Springer Show (or was it a 1970’s style “t-group?”) as he invited incited Barack Obama and John Edwards to waste the initial segment telling what they thought wrong with Hillary Clinton. This allowed the more elderly second tier candidates to interject some sanctimony about harrrrmony.

But Blitzer had two audience pleasers up his sleeve in the form of “yes or no, dammit!” questions. Do you favor giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants? and What is more important when they clash: human rights or national security?

The gotcha-trap of the first question sprung this time on Barack Obama, who attempted to take some time to answer what has never been a yes-or-no question, regardless of what Wolf Blitzer might say. Ever since, the pack of MSM wolves has been howling “whooo hooo hooo… Obama hedged and hemmed and hawed, the loser.”

Why the driver’s license question is not a yes-or-no question requires thinking beyond the concrete operational level. All that Obama and, before him, Clinton, demonstrated is that their minds have matured into handling grown-up thinking skills. Blitzer and, of course, the rest of the pack will have none of that. A concrete operational public makes good customers, among other things.

Why “do you favor giving driver’s licenses to illegal immingrants” is not a yes-or-no question includes at least the following points:

  1. The framing in itself is just this side of hate speech. As Dennis Kucinich rightly pointed out (and Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer days later made a point of muddling) “people are not illegal.” But if you can frame them as such, then anything more than bread and water — if even that — becomes muddle-headed, squishy-hearted overindulgence. And if you lean towards allowing anyone who passes the driver’s tests to obtain driver’s licenses (as Clinton at first seemed to and Obama does), and you accept the question as legitimate, the urge to explain yourself as not being muddle-headed and squishy-hearted becomes overwhelming. So you either answer it Wolf’s way or open yourself to a Dobbs attack. Or try… oh, you can’t win.
  2. None of the candidates at the debate are running for Governor or State Legislator. The driver’s license question is one of state, not federal policy. You see, Wolf, we have 50 state governments and one federal government and they have different responsibilities, and where should presidential candidates get off telling governors what they should do? But — you don’t really give any more a rat’s rear end about driver’s licenses or powers and responsibilities than Tim Russert, do you, Wolf? The question is code for “can we frame you as namby-pamby or tough?” And to the MSM, of course, “tough” means willing to pick on people more vulnerable than you.
  3. CNN, Wolf’s employer for many years, has an agenda — to manufacture crisis by slamming undocumented immigrants every time, all the time. Why? Who knows? I do know CNN’s rating soared into the general public’s consciousness during Gulf War I; maybe CNN feels it needs a crisis to hawk for ratings. Maybe they’re going after the Fox demographic. Whatever. When Wolf Blitzer asked the question, it would have been fair to ask whether he was at that point merely functioning as Lou Dobb’s sock puppet.

The second question, “what is more important when they clash: human rights or national security?” is so patently disgusting that it shouldn’t have been asked. But it was. The only answer a decent human being could give would be something like

I don’t know what you’re talking about! Can you give an example where that might be the case?

And when Wolf brings up the ticking time bomb scenario, slam him for suggesting that the Bill of Rights can be thrown aside on the basis of the plot line to some second rate pulp fiction.

Well, Democrats and Republicans alike asked for it, and they got it. No more League of Women Voters, no more John Andersons to worry about. Or Ralph Naders. But boyz, ya forgot to control the primaries!

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