Tuesday, March 04, 2008


By William Fisher

In this space a few weeks ago, I ranted about the sleep-inducing irrelevance of the so-called “debates” among the presidential wanabees. I vowed never to watch another. But, like some mega-testosteroned dude lusting after a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, my resolution collapsed in a wonky heap.

And I ended up watching all twenty!

So what did I hear?

Puerile arguments about Experience versus Change. Fighting Special Interests. Politics-as-usual versus magically creating some kind of national consensus accompanied by “Celestial Choirs.”

Dumbed-down soundbites about Health Care. Jobs. Gas prices. The mortgage crisis. NAFTA. The Iraq War. The Global War on Terror. Each candidate would, of course, solve each of these problems with dispatch – especially if the phone rang at three in the morning.

Are these important issues? Sure. But the notion of laying out real policies in 90 seconds is patently absurd. The demeanor of the candidates was more about burnishing their presidential personas than about how they would deal with these incredibly complex problems. Their rhetoric was less about telling us their solutions than about a race to the bottom.

But the candidates are not the sole culprits in this performance of Kabuki Theater. A large part of the responsibility for the irrelevance of most of these “debates” rests with the well-coiffed TV anchors and less spiffy print journalists who hosted them.

After all, they and their producers are the ones who came up with the formats. And they’re the ones who carefully crafted the “gotcha” questions.

Their consuming interest is not about helping to inform the American people. It’s about ratings, which means money. It’s about rushing to print with self-laudatory press releases, which means celebrity and notoriety. And more money.

But the most maddening part of these quadrennial spectacles is what was never asked or answered.

For the past seven-plus years, we’ve had a president who, with the stroke of a pen, has decided which parts of which laws he would obey. Yet a new study by the watchdog group “Media Matters for America” reported that Democratic and Republican candidates have been asked few if any questions about the limits of executive power, the checks and balances of the Constitution, torture, wiretapping, and a ton of other civil liberties concerns.

For the past seven-plus years, we’ve had a president who has trashed science about stem cell research, about Terry Schiavo and end-of-life issues, about humankind’s role in creating greenhouse gasses, and about the efficacy of “abstinence only” programs.

For the past seven years-plus, we’ve had a president who cozied up to ruthless dictators so long as they promised to partner with us to defeat the jihadists.

A president who struck back at Afghanistan, the safe haven of those who attacked us on 9/11 – and then took his eye off the ball by ignoring the United Nations and invading Iraq on the basis of over-hyped and bogus “evidence.”

A president who gave us Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons and waterboarding.

A president who has acted as if ethnic profiling didn’t exist and the race issue was solved by Abraham Lincoln.

A president who piously pronounced his approval of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian disaster, inserted a caveat about how the parties have to adjust to the new realities on the ground (encouraging still more Israeli settlements), and then waited until his legacy-building last year in office to take any affirmative steps to solve this 45-year-old travesty.

A president who has appointed grossly unqualified party cronies to run our government.

A president who has seen the most precipitous worldwide collapse of respect for America in our history.

Yet, by my count, there has been only one question about wiretapping. One about global warming. One about how to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian disaster. And there has not been a single question about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Or renditions. Or habeas corpus. Or torture. Or whether telecom companies should be granted retroactive immunity for their role in domestic spying. Or stem cell research. Or America’s public diplomacy strategy. Or about any of the plethora of issues whose solutions will influence the contours of our society and help determine our place in the world for the generation to come.

Instead, we were treated to such inconsequential distractions as the truly intellectually challenging colloquy about whether Senator Obama simply denounced the praise he got from Louis Farrakhan or both denounced and rejected it. (He chose the twofer.)

Someone once defined leadership as telling us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear. By that standard, the candidates, the debate hosts, and the media who reported the debates, have all been an embarrassing failure.

Don’t our voters deserve a lot better?