Getting in a Real Debate

In high school, I participated in Lincoln Douglas debate. Commonly referred to as LD debate, this one-on-one, value-based debate style can trace its roots to the famous formal debates between senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

I loved LD debate. This style required that I consider and prepare both an affirmative and negative argument for each assigned topic. Regardless of personal opinion, my goal was to create the strongest case possible. Now, however, outside of high school and college campuses, organized debate is a farce.

A format so reliant on word choice, one-on-one debates have been hijacked by consultants, pundits, and polls. What could be an opportunity to hear new ideas and to determine who best represents your views has turned into a contest of who can say the least in the most words.

The recent presidential debates (complete transcripts for both Democratic and Republican events c/o NYT) with all 18 candidates were not one-on-one events. However, they did provide gems that illustrate the sad state of public debate like this exchange between Brian Williams of NBC and John Edwards:

MR. WILLIAMS: And, Senator, I have a follow-up for you on modern-day America. You’ve been a counsel to hedge funds. Do hedge funds make America any better in any way?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, I think what — what — first of all, I think the financial markets are an important component of trying to figure out what it is we need to do about the fact that we have 47 million people without health care, 37 million people who wake up in poverty every day. They play an enormous role in how money moves in this country. And I happen to believe that we have a responsibility to the people in this country who wake up every day worried about feeding and clothing their children. And I think those people in New York who work in financial markets understand, in some ways at least, what can be done, and can play a significant role in trying to lift people up who are struggling.

I am proud of what I’ve been doing for the last few years. You know, I’ve been all over the country organizing workers into unions and raising the minimum wage, and also working at a poverty center at the University of North Carolina.

Perhaps I’m overlooking it, but no where in there does Edwards say anything explicit about hedge funds. Then, Senator Clinton takes a stab at it:

MR. WILLIAMS: I’m afraid time is up. Senator Clinton, you represent the state of New York, just mentioned.

How is America a better place because of all these burgeoning hedge funds?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think that America is a great place because we have an entrepreneurial economy. We have people who are willing to make stakes in new enterprises and invest their money. And obviously, one of the other reasons we’re a great country is because we’ve learned over the years how to regulate that so nobody gets an unfair advantage and that we, you know, have a framework within which our free-market system operates.

Obviously, for me it’s exciting to represent both New York City, the global capital market leader, and yet I also represent a big state where there are a lot of poor people and people who have no access to health care, they don’t have access to affordable college, they’re worried about their futures.

So what we’ve got to do here is get back to having a Democratic president who will set the rules so that we can continue to build our economy, we can inspire and incentive people to take those risks, but we begin to repair the damage that has been done by this president and Republican Congress.

She does a slightly better job and makes a vague connection by mentioning risk, money, and new enterprise. But again, no where in her answer do you see mention of the words “hedge fund.” Now on to the Republicans. Consider this exchange between moderator Chris Matthews of NBC and former governor, Mike Hukabee:

MR. MATTHEWS: Governor Huckabee, the question is, how do you unify the country the way Reagan did, a good portion of the country?

MR. HUCKABEE: I think it’s important to remember that what Ronald Reagan did was to give us a vision for this country, a morning in America, a city on a hill. We were reminded that we are a great nation not because government is great; we are a great nation because people are great.

Chris, I want to go back, though, to say why we’re a great nation. We are a culture of life. We celebrate, we elevate life. And let me just say, when hikers on Mount Hood get lost, we move heaven and Earth to go find them.

When coalminers in West Virginia are trapped in a mine, we go after them because we celebrate life.

This life issue is not insignificant, it’s not small. It separates from the — us from the Islamic fascists who would strap a bomb to the belly of their child and blow them up. We don’t do that in this country.

Hmm…unification doesn’t really get addressed. Then, there’s this exchange between Matthews and Virgina’s former governor, James Gilmore:

MR. MATTHEWS: But you, as commander in chief and chief executive, would you employ Karl Rove?

MR. GILMORE: It isn’t a matter of Karl Rove. What’s important to this nation is not Karl Rove. (Laughter.) What’s important to this nation and to this party is the acquisition of a philosophy and values that we are as Republicans.

There is a time now for us to reach out and to say that we’re spending too much money in government, that it’s taking too much of the resources of this nation, that we have got to do something about government spending, create more jobs and higher revenue and a better opportunity, and thereby to cut taxes for regular people. I did that as governor. I’m a consistent conservative that keeps his word and does what he says that he’s going to do.

Seems pretty straightforward, yes or no, but that doesn’t appear in his answer.

Now consider the seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas. Both men were forced to address the divisive question of slavery, and their exchanges leading up to a state election drew audiences from other states faced with the same issue. (The text is extensive, but here is a link to all seven debates c/o Bartleby.) Now, keeping recent political debates in mind, consider part of Lincoln’s closing response to Douglas during the final debate in Alton, Illinois:

“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” (link)

Heard anything similar in honesty and clarity from the current presidential contenders?

We have lost an important platform that contributes to the progression of democracy. Instead we are inundated with sound bites and invitations to become friends on MySpace. People sat for upwards of three hours to hear a debate between Lincoln and Douglas. Could you last that long? Maybe it’s our own fault. Maybe candidates are only trying to catch our shorter attention spans. Maybe we need to pay less attention to candidates’ private lives and more to their positions on national security and health care.

I ‘m officially putting my vote up for bid. The candidate who can clearly articulate his or her position on foreign policy, domestic management, and fiscal responsibility gets my vote, regardless of whether I agree or not. That way, I at least know what I’m getting. Somehow I doubt I’ll have any takers.



4 Responses to “Getting in a Real Debate”

  1. May 11, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Hey Britt! I know you and I basically STARTED discussing things with Socrates and philosophy, but your contrast between the Douglas/Lincoln debate and the current debates made me think about the differences that Socrates saw in the true philosophers versus those that practiced professional rhetoric. ‘Rhetoric’ was considered so vogue in ancient Greece, but Socrates was right…it was just a way to speak that actually clouded the meaning.

  2. 2 Britt
    May 11, 2007 at 8:16 am

    Thinking seems an endangered species in debate and in politics. I swear they actually try to cloud their meaning on purpose, because you likes admitting they’re confused. Politicians now rely on pride to keep people from speaking up and going, “Huh?”

  3. 3 BigMike
    July 3, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Great piece. FYI, Mike Gravel is the only candidate interested in honestly addressing the issues at these debates.

  4. 4 Britt
    July 3, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for the feedback. It’s always interesting to hear how the 2nd tier candidates handle themselves at the debates. Men like Mike Gravel and Ron Paul can only gain by honestly answering questions and addressing the issues.

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