Monday, October 8, 2012

The no-debate debate

If anything, the last U.S. presidential debate last Wednesday is a clear sign that the next debates between President Barack Obama and challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney, will end up just the same.
No surprises, no clear winner, and the public not any more informed to make their intelligent choice upon Election Day.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off three times in person ahead of the 2012
U.S. presidential election on Nov. 6. Click link to view "Presidential Debate 2012: Obama
Warns Against Voucher Programs,"  

As one political observer noted, “America doesn’t really have presidential debates.” The candidates are just making joint appearances, as if agreed on beforehand, for them to regurgitate tired talking points and lies. Instead of the debates being enlightening or even transformational, they are “staged-managed to satisfy the demands of power brokers with money and connections rather than the needs of democracy.”
The ultimate result of these presidential debates has long been fixed by the so-called bipartisan Commission on Presidential elections. For over a quarter of a century, this commission which relies on big corporations for funding will ensure that the debates work best for the interest of the major parties and also for the networks to boost their ratings.
Since Ralph Nader started to run for U.S. President, he had fought hard to have a place in the debates as the Green Party candidate but the organizers never backed down in preserving the status quo. No third-party candidates had ever won a spot in the debates, a sign that the organizers are more concerned with the partisan interests of the two major candidates rather than with the democratic interests of the voting public.
The current U.S. presidential debates are under pressure from reformers who want to open the presidential debates to make them more interesting and relevant.
For example, there are suggestions to let activists ask questions based on their knowledge and experience. Or allow moderators to challenge the candidates by asking follow-up questions and to encourage candidates to go at each other.
But the format of the debates limits the questions to the same ones that have been asked and answered a million times. Naturally, the candidates are expected to respond as coached and prepped by their handlers. With most of the moderators belonging to the same old club of white-media stalwarts, they are not expected to rock the boat or stray outside of what is usually agreed as the sphere of legitimate controversy.
A New York Times editorial summed up last Wednesday’s debate as follows:
“The Mitt Romney who appeared on the stage at the University of Denver seemed to be fleeing from the one who won the Republican nomination on a hard-right platform of tax cuts, budget slashing and indifference to the suffering of those at the bottom of the economic ladder. And Mr. Obama’s competitive edge from 2008 clearly dulled, as he missed repeated opportunities to challenge Mr. Romney on his falsehoods and turnabouts."
“Virtually every time Mr. Romney spoke, he misrepresented the platform on which he and Paul Ryan are actually running. The most prominent example, taking up the first half-hour of the debate, was on taxes. Mr. Romney claimed, against considerable evidence, that he had no intention of cutting taxes on the rich or enacting a tax cut that would increase the deficit.”
Viewers of the debate were bombarded with the hollowness of Mitt Romney’s arguments and left baffled by Obama’s unwillingness to expose it when he has the facts on his side. This unfortunate scenario is made worse with the timidity of the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, to jump in and challenge either candidate on the facts.
Do presidential debates really enrich the democratic process?
Hardly, says Scott Horton who calls this ritual of presidential debates “The Zero-Calorie Debate” in his article in Harper’s Magazine. He doesn’t see the candidates or the campaigns as the problem, but “the quality of questioning that came from the carefully-selected media questioners. The questions actually asked are remarkably predictable. By and large, the questioning operated to lower, not to raise, the caliber of the political debate.”
Last Wednesday’s debate shows how much disinterested Jim Lehrer was with his questioning. Instead of helping the viewers and the voters understand the candidates or their policies, Lehrer simply sat on helplessly while the candidates slugged it out with their recitation of tired talking points. No wonder many must have switched their television channel to a sports broadcast that was being aired at the same time following Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera in his quest for the triple crown in baseball.
There are many questions which should lie in the heart of political debates but have never been asked. An environment has been engendered in which scrutiny of presidential candidates has become superficial, and in which candidates can get away with so much lying and distortion of the facts. False or bogus claims are often made without shame or correction. Little actual debating is done on substantive issues that matter because the debates are packaged to resemble a television game show.
Poverty and pressing questions on energy and the environment aren’t the only subject candidates would likely gloss over in the debates.
Questions that are likely not to be asked during the debates are: “What will the candidates do to address the growing problem of more than 20 million people in America who have incomes below half the poverty line—less than about $9,000 for a family of three?” or “What will the candidate do as president about the growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?
As Scott Horton has observed: “Our political culture continues to avoid vital issues. Instead, we are treated to political tragicomedy.” These debates are impoverishing the entire political process, Horton adds.
In the Philippines, we have also held televised debates between presidential candidates in our attempt to copy almost everything American. But do these debates make Filipinos more informed about their choices? If the American experience is found to be distracting, how much more can seven or more candidates obfuscate the entire process by telling the viewers their version of lies and bogus claims?
Just to win, the biggest liar of them all usually takes the crown especially if the candidate is connected to powerful political clans and business corporations, or if he could bank on the political legacy of his parents, even if he has the reputation for doing nothing.

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