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‘The Politics of Parsing’

Debates need to focus on substance not spectacle

By Ronald K. Kamdem

Viewers of last week’s democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nev. might be forgiven for thinking that they were witnessing a large pep rally. The show featured everything from a birthday wish to Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) from an audience member to a plea for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney from Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Unfortunately, only those who tuned in for the second half of the show led by audience-members—and not journalists—were treated to a worthwhile debate.

The event kicked off with the usual Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)-bashing focused on her lack of firm positions. Unfortunately, the question CNN anchor Campbell Brown asked to foster discussion on the topic was so politically charged that all we saw was a brawl between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) on healthcare plans. Brown tackled her not on her position, but went immediately into the mudslinging, asking about what “one of your opponents on this stage calls […] ‘the politics of parsing.’” While this was great for entertainment value and for the media, which has been looking to hype the Obama-Clinton conflict, this was bad news for serious voters.

What followed was a series of discussions on “wedge issues,” as Obama termed them. The issue of driving licenses for illegal immigrants, which tripped up Clinton in the last debate, was rehashed. But what should have been a jumping point for the bigger problem of illegal immigration turned into a political farce. After moderator Wolf Blitzer informed Obama that a “yes” or “no” answer would suffice in indicating his support for giving licenses to undocumented immigrants, Blitzer suggested going down the line and getting a “yes” or “no” response from everyone. Even as he posed the question to the first candidate in line—John Edwards—it was evident that the issue itself was unimportant; the focus was on how these top candidates would navigate their way out of this loaded question. It was nothing short of theatrical.

Sadly, all the important issues following this melodrama lost their poignancy. From the troop buildup in Iraq to energy issues, the candidate with the best response was the simply one with the most charisma. From the candidates’ namedropping to their masturbatory rants about the depth and breadth of their political experience, there was a deep lack of authenticity.

Fortunately, the discussion took a turn for the better after the intermission. The candidates were asked questions from the audience which they could use as jumping points to differentiate their views. Without question, this was the best part of the debate. The confrontational podiums were taken away and all the candidates sat down in chairs. They were forced to personally face the tough questions that the average American faces everyday, like one from Khalid Khan, an American repeatedly profiled and searched at airports in the name of national security.

This format was much more conducive to a debate on the issues. All the candidates were able to display their platforms as well as their expertise when discussing solutions for the complex issues—contractors in Iraq, social security, and energy—that the next president will deal with.

Oftentimes, it seems that these debates simply cater to popular hype surrounding the candidates for entertainment value. It is understandable that voters get bored by seeing the same candidates say the same things week after week, but dramatizing the debates is not the best way to bring back novelty. When questions from average Americans in the audience elicit more substantial responses than those from the professional journalists appointed to hold our candidates responsible, it’s clear that there’s something wrong with the electoral campaign process and the media at large.

Ronald K. Kamdem ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House.

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